What Have You Done for Me Lately?

April 19 2013

The printed annual report is dead. Has been for years by every measure. Having created annuals for a good chunk of my career, I don’t mourn the loss of 18-hour+ workdays for months on end and the slew of critical last minute changes. As soon as the legal requirement changed to do nothing more than a 10K distribution (and later, Notice and Access), the fate of the narrative annual report was pretty much sealed.

So why re-visit the obituary of these “last century” relics to the prior year’s numbers? Because, after all these years, I still ask the question, “What replaced them?”

While most CEOs (and the poor souls that were tasked with bringing these annual volumes to life) saw the annual as a legally required pain in the rear, a few visionary leaders understood the opportunity. It was THE once-a-year chance to tell the story of what was next for their organization. While the SEC mandated and squarely pointed this document towards the “shareholder,” the greater opportunity was to have a conversation with any and every person that came into contact with the business - employees, partners, communities, sales targets, Government and NGOs - and to recruit new talent. All of those audiences wanted to know “why.” Why would I invest my time or money with you? Why would I want to do business with you? Why would I get up every day and help the business prosper? Why would I let you operate in my town, state or country?

I’m not suggesting that bringing back annual reports is the answer, but I do wonder what has taken their place in the communication food chain. What replaced them in spreading the word to the curious human beings that care about you and your company now, and its path in the future?

Many CEOs have embraced blogging or tweeting. That’s great! Use the power of every channel you can. One hundred forty characters maximum a few times a day or a few paragraphs of what’s rolling around in your brain on a Tuesday morning are all good. But, (as David Hill, a very talented writer who helped me understand communication was known to say, “and, there is always a but”) what is that piece that now shares the whole story of the company and where it is going?

A side note of sorts: Our client Mariner Kemper, the 40-year-old CEO of UMB Financial Corporation, still believes in the power of this annual art form to tell the story of his 100-year-old company. Seeing the lineage from five generations of family leadership via the annual letters gives you a good sense of how powerful this single outbound communication can be. We’ve helped UMB reimagine the annual - as both a printed communication and an iPad app - to broaden its reach and to give it the legs that traditional print alone lacks.

Love them or hate them, mandated old-school AR’s served a profound purpose. Storytelling held to a higher-level of gravity, honesty and SEC scrutiny. Annuals were bound by legal parameters that made them much more powerful than any blast, blurb, blog or sales brochure. So my questions are: How and where are you telling all those people that want to believe in you and your vision about the company that they are connected to? How often do you do it? And, is there a cumulative effect of the year-over-year conversation?

Don’t do it to answer my questions, do it for you…and all your constituencies. There is no singular answer. Fine-tune whatever you do for your company. Craft it to be relevant to your culture. Make it accessible to all your audiences. Hone it to be important in the most holistic way possible…and then do it again at least once a year.

Mike Miller

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