MSc students from DCU Business School study ESB annual reports

This week, we’re featuring two guest blog posts by students on the MSc in Accounting at Dublin City University Business School (DCUBS), who studied ESB’s annual reports as part of their coursework.

Back in 2016, we launched our back catalogue of ESB’s annual reports online – every ESB annual report, dating back to its foundation in 1927, can be found here. These posts illustrate how useful instant online access to such material can be, for academic as well as casual researchers. And thanks to the hard work of these students, we’ve now learned something new about ESB!

The evolution of graph usage in ESB’s annual reports

Caoimhe O’Grady and Conall Egan, MSc Accounting students, DCUBS

Since its establishment in 1927, ESB has per its website ‘endeavoured to bring light and energy to the people it serves, allowing individuals and communities to fulfil their potential in every walk of life’. As the country’s leading energy provider it prides itself on excellent customer service and in recent years, maintaining a position of financial strength.

Like most large organisations, ESB use graphs to communicate its achievements on such items in the annual reports. Over the last two decades, annual reporting by public companies has moved from dull financial documents to colourful marketing and public relations documents.

In this post we detail ESB’s increase in graph usage in the past 20 years and potential signs of impression management. This latter phenomenon is common in annual reports, and it is when management seeks to portray a more favourable impression of the company, potentially erasing the expected unbiased nature of annual reports.

How did ESB use graphs in annual reports?

We examined the annual reports from 1996 to 2016. In terms of usage, graphs in the late 1990s are low in volume and predominantly portray financial information. Usage almost halved from 1996 to 2005, from 9 to 5 graphs annually. In 2008, this trend was reversed and continued upwards to 2016, with usage almost tripling from 2008 to 2016. These more recent years also include a greater emphasis on non-financial items.

Positive impression graph showing key facts and figures, ESB Annual Report, 2014

Negative impression graph showing falling market share, ESB Annual Report, 2010

We also divided the graphs in the annual reports into three categories: positive impression graphs; negative impression graphs; and neutral graphs. Graphs which gave a positive impression were scored +1, a negative impression -1 and neutral graphs 0. Over the entire period, 57.6% of graphs portray a positive impression of the company, with 28.26% portraying a negative impression, the balance being neutral.

This would suggest some evidence of impression management as more graphs are positive. However, looking at the period in more detail, the positive/negative balance is more towards the positive in the early part of this period, and as mentioned more focusing on financial aspects. The second half of the period shows a more even balance between the usage of positive and negative impression graphics. The years 2014 to 2016 show a slight leaning towards positive graphs, which would be expected given the up-turn in the economy in general.

Conclusion

While the content of the financial statements and some parts of the annual report are highly regulated, the use of graphs is not regulated and thus readers of annual reports need to be aware of the notion of impression management. From our overall study of ESB’s annual reports, we can suggest that management have moved away from the selective use of financial graphs and appear to be presenting a balanced impression, which is good news from the perspective of readers of the annual reports.


With thanks to Dr Martin Quinn, Associate Professor and Head of Accounting at DCU, who got in touch to share these posts with us. If you are an academic who would like to get in touch to use ESB’s archival material in your coursework, please contact us at esbarchives@esb.ie.

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