Nowadays, annual and sustainability reports are a major corporate endeavour and CEO’s letters to shareholders are their most prominent and widely read part, since they represent a way of reaching out to shareholders and investors to ensure them of the company’s stability and credibility, and of providing management’s summary of the company’s overall performance for the year. We can state we are all indirectly aware of the widely acknowledged role that social reports have as vehicles for the interaction and dialogue between organisations and society.

But have you ever investigated shareholders letter as a genre?

Generally written as a signed personal letter and always appearing at the beginning of annual and sustainability reports, these relatively short documents ­– from one to roughly four pages – explicitly address to shareholders, thus showing a more friendly tone between writers and readers. Assuming that annual and sustainability reports can be considered as a genre displaying internal heterogeneity, they represent a hybrid genre in terms of discourse used. For instance, business, environmental, legal and technological discourse can be identified within an exemplar of annual reports.

What exactly a sustainability report is?

A sustainability report is the provision of environmental, social and governance (ESG) information and since the 1990s it has become a mainstream phenomenon. Primarily written in narrative forms, sustainability reports represent the company’s voice to the external world. However, differences in attitudes and activities regarding sustainability reporting do exist between various industries and companies of different sizes. For instance, in some countries (United Kingdom and United States) reporting is more advanced than in others in terms of voluntary or mandatory reporting by companies.

As regards annual reports, they primarily differ from sustainability reports because they contain information of economic and legal nature, and they provide the economic performance of the company during the past financial year to explain the risks that could potentially influence the business. Another distinctive feature is that information is presented through quantitative data. In fact, these reports seem highly structured and conventionalised. Although they do present some heterogeneity in terms of content, positioning and form, this is usually no impediment to either genre classification or recognition from the members of their discourse community.

The phenomenon of corporate social reporting, and in particular of letters to shareholders, has largely been the focus of literature. However, even if It is true that the discourse analysis and business communication literature thoroughly describes this genre, few studies have tackled their level of involvement. This is why it would be particularly interesting to analyse their interpersonal functions, that is how through these texts reporting companies construct their identity and relationship with their interlocutors.

References

Gray, R., Kouhy, R., and Lavers, S. (1995). Corporate social and environmental reporting: a review of the literature and a longitudinal study of UK disclosure. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal 8(2): pp. 47-77

Kohut, G. & Segars, A. (1992). The President’s letter to stockholders: An examination of corporate communication strategy. The Journal of Business Communication.

Stittle, J. (2003). Annual Reports: Delivering Your Corporate Message to Stakeholders. Hardcover.