Compared to most communications projects, the annual report is a monster. It lurks on the horizon of your calendar, daring you to come forward and challenge it. It knows the stress and anxiety it can cause even the most composed communications pros.
What makes the annual report so difficult to produce? For one thing, in most organizations, it’s a massive project that gets piggybacked onto an already jammed corporate schedule. Newsletters and news releases still need to go out. Events and trade shows still need to go on. Videos and ad campaigns still need to be produced. But the annual report waits for none of them.
Annual reports also cause problems because they require the input of so many corporate departments. It’s not just a communications production. You need to work closely with finance, investor relations, sales, marketing, human resources, training and just about everyone else. Plan it poorly and you’ll feel like everyone from the receptionist to the CEO has vetted your copy.
Here are five practices that have served us well over the years as we’ve produced dozens of annual reports.
1. Nail down the theme early, get executive agreement
I once completely redrafted an annual report 11 times for a senior executive before we decided the first draft was, after all, what we wanted. It was not an experience I’d recommend to you.
That is why it is absolutely vital that senior executives are agreed on the theme and direction of the annual report. Meet with them early, without a deadline looming, and decide what key messages you need to communicate. The story might need to be edited afterwards, but if everyone is agreed on the plot, you should be able to avoid major rewrites.
2. Treat it as a chapter in a longer narrative
Too many organizations seek to do something completely different with their annual reports every year. That’s a mistake that shows you don’t have a coherent or consistent corporate voice. Annual reports should be a source of comfort and familiarity to your readers. I prefer to look at each annual report as a chapter in a longer narrative. The adventures over the past year might be different than years before, but our heroes are still on the same path, fighting the good fight like they always have.
3. Create a workback schedule (then add an extra 2-4 weeks)
The best laid plans and all that. It’s a very rare year that an annual report hits every deadline along the way. Even the most organized individual or team will need some wiggle room. Whether it’s to reschedule photography due to weather or sickness, or to adjust to the busy schedule of your printer, you should give yourself at least two weeks for contingencies.
But let’s face it, most delays occur internally. A senior executive can’t get his or her comments back in the time allotted or your finance department takes longer than expected to provide final numbers. These days we’re regularly working with suppliers around the corner in Manitoba and all over Canada and the United States. My best advice is to keep all the people involved in the loop. Tell them when they’re going to get copy to review and when it needs to be completedâ€¦ then tell them again (nicely, of course). Just make sure you’re hitting your own deadlines along the way. Others will have little sympathy if you demand much of them and nothing of yourself.
4. Hire the right team
It takes a village to create a modern, professional annual report. Even if you hire an agency like ours, your extended annual report family will likely include writers, website and graphic designers, photographers, videographers and printers. Make sure they’re all on the same page. Share your creative brief and make a point of touching base with all your â€˜players’ regularly. Even if your printer isn’t up to bat for another six weeks, it helps to send a note now and then letting them know how the project is progressing.
If you’re strapped for time and unsure if you can manage the project yourself, it’s time to bring in outside help. An annual report’s deadline waits for no one, and you (and your organization) can’t afford a sloppy effort.
5. Sweat the details
Your annual report is an important document and it deserves respect and a careful, cautious eye. Early in my career, I was given a bruising lesson in why details matter. Working with a CFO who caught and questioned my every comma and apostrophe, I learned the importance of making sure every pixel is set right. We spent hours going back and forth over every page. It was time consuming and stressful. The next year, I resolved to cut that time in half by spending twice the time up front proofing everything. It worked.Â Our team will read your annual report front to back and back to front, checking line spacing and spelling and every single number.
If you’re dreading your annual report this year, give us a call. We’d be happy to help plan it, write it, design it, shoot it, code it and get it to your stakeholders (impressively) on time.