The digital journey to ESEF...

The Annual Report has always been considered the definitive publication of reliable truth as proclaimed by the C-Suite and subsequently approved by the company’s auditors, to be trusted by everyone who considers themselves a stakeholder. And perhaps now more than ever, stakeholder engagement has never been more important given the times we are living in. Undoubtedly the impact of Covid 19 will be the focus of much of the narrative of annual reports as many listed companies now turn their attention from the interim report to the year-end requirements.

Shareholders and stakeholders alike will seek out the value proposition and impacts and what that means in the ‘new-norm’. Long-termism will give way to short-termism as strategy and business models are modified to address the immediate challenges of a whole new set of risks and uncertainties presented by the pandemic. The communications and design teams will be burning the candles at both ends.

And among all these uncertainties, the certainty of ESEF filing looms large bringing with it a fair degree of confusion and complexity. The race is well and truly on as Company Secretaries field calls from emerging providers countering their own measured scare tactics with offers of the holy grail of iXBRL tagging. The role of the Auditor in this new world of acronyms and technical jargon also remains uncertain and undoubtedly many finance departments will look to them for comfort, the level of which achieved will depend greatly on the level of involvement demanded of the auditors by regulators.

But just like the pandemic, ESEF will force us (and our clients) to think differently. Technology is providing the tools to enhance our communication where person-to-person interaction is much less possible. Video conferencing apps that had not previously entered our lexicon are now the go-to solutions, simply because we have adapted our thinking to the possibility, or perhaps reality. The Annual Report is a critical and controllable primary communications tool, yet too often technology is not used to support or enhance this communication. It tends to get a single outing in a traditional format, almost disregarding the primary format in which it will be ultimately consumed. Beyond the cohort of shareholders who have yet to opt-in to receive their Annual Report digitally, the majority of reports are being read from a screen, but designed for paper. And static.

The ESMA ESEF requirements will result in a machine-comparable and human readable online publication through iXBRL tagging. For Irish and UK listed companies, this is likely to result in a printed version of the annual report for shareholder mailing, an xHTML version (incorporating those meddlesome iXBRL tags) published online to fulfil its ESEF filing obligations and a PDF version of the printed document available online. For some, the new ESEF requirements may be viewed as yet another compliance requirement, but for others, this will be the first step towards their integrated digital communications.

The potential for listed companies in particular to create more engaging corporate communications through HTML should not be underestimated. And as Annual Reports continue to grow in content, the argument for delivering this content in a dynamic environment, designed specifically for this medium, grows louder. If we consider the recipients as our audiences as opposed to readers then we might consider how we might channel the information, package the content and deliver these messages differently, creating a more rewarding user experience by publishing content in a more engaging, dynamic and accessible way.

Of course it can be argued that publishing a PDF online is making the annual report content digital. But by definition it is simply making the published version portable. Purposely created and intuitively structured, HTML supercharges the Annual Report, not only by designing for the intended medium, but by making it much more shareable, searchable and comparable.

It may also be comforting to know that we are here to guide you along the journey with some online examples below. So say goodbye to PDF. Say hello to HTML.