Making the grade with your company reports

FEW people can resist those magazine quizzes that claim to reveal your inner personality.

So, try this one on your corporate personality: pick up your annual report and approach it as a stranger might.

Is it: (A) meeting all fiscal requirements, retrospective, financially opaque, short on expensive visual interest, long on verbal camouflage? or (B) only the first two of the above, but more besides - financially transparent, visually interesting, well written and giving a clear, concise account of business issues past and present? If you're instinctively happier with option A, and evidence from many British companies suggests you are not alone, then move to my final paragraph.

If you think there might be something in option B, read on.

At United Biscuits, we aspire to option B and the research we commission each year shows we are making progress, as our annual report becomes a recognised plank of our investor-relations programme.

Of course, the audiences of our annual report are diverse, but we have prioritised them and we try to define appropriate messages.

The easy bit is getting the report produced. Occasionally, we hear nightmare stories of reprints and erratum slips.

There is an easy way to avoid all this: sort out the internal mechanisms of tasks and responsibilities - only involving yourself in the process at useful and vital stages - and make sure you employ good people internally and an experienced design consultancy.

Your designers need to understand financial audiences but most importantly you must help them understand your corporate culture and taste.

We sit down from time to time with our designers and other people's annual reports. We sort them into those we like and those we don't. Alarmingly, given the money that everyone spends on this exercise, the second pile is usually bigger.

The only subject more fraught than organising covers is how to shoot your board, photographically speaking.

Make sure your designers employ a patient, experienced photographer who can work fast and with suitable regard for vanity. Don't be afraid of cheating - they don't all have to be there together and they won't all be beautiful.

If necessary, resort to retouching; I'm thinking of having hair in next year's report. One final tip - don't let your finance people make any design decisions other than what colour the back pages should be.

Options A and B will cost you almost equal amounts of money. The design, production and printing of your annual report will cost you about 20 per cent of the audit fee to produce the financial accounts required in the back. The print bill will be at least 15 per cent; so the five per cent you spend on design, writing, photographic content, together with adequate amounts of management time can turn a fiscal necessity into a useful corporate tool.