Ron Hutcheson
Ron Hutcheson

It's no secret that many PR professionals suffer from arithmophobia—a fear of numbers. We tend to be word people. But there's no escaping the fact that financial literacy is a core requirement in our line of work, especially when dealing with corporate clients.

We don't all need to have MBAs, but we should be at least somewhat conversant in the language of business. We cannot adequately advise our clients if we do not have insights into their business objectives, their challenges and their financial drivers. Here are a few good places to look for those insights:

Annual Reports. Sure, there are a lot of numbers in annual reports, but they also include some easily understood information about the company's performance and operations. The best annual reports also capture the company's culture and provide a clear outline of strategic goals, as well as challenges. Some companies are particularly creative, like this example from a WordPress hosting agency.

Annual reports typically start with a CEO letter, ideally providing a concise recap of the year's big initiatives, such as this one from the CEO of a major retailer. Although most CEO letters are as upbeat as a holiday letter, some CEOs are willing to acknowledge bad news.

"Mistakes? I've certainly seen a few and made my share," wrote the CEO of a global manufacturing company in his 2016 letter, citing "lackluster results" and an ill-timed acquisition that quickly became "an expensive learning experience."

Annual reports can also be useful when preparing for a pitch, not only for background on the company, but also to check for any connections to the C suite or the board of directors. Just for prurient interest, you might want to check out the compensation section to see how much you might be making if you had taken a different career path and gone for that MBA.

10-Ks. Like annual reports, 10-Ks provide a comprehensive look at a company's performance. Publicly traded companies are required to file them with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) annually. They are "just the facts" reports that are not as visually compelling as annual reports, but they often provide interesting information. The sections on "risk factors" and legal matters can be particularly enlightening. For example, in February, a healthcare company disclosed in its most recent 10-K that the company had received subpoenas from both the Justice Department and the SEC related to investigations into allegations of asbestos in a popular baby product.

10-Qs and Earnings Calls. The SEC also requires publicly traded companies to file quarterly reports on their performance. With each filing, companies typically hold a conference call with investors to recap their reports and take questions. The 10-Qs can also be remarkably candid. One ride-sharing and mobility company was blunt about its financial situation in its June filing, acknowledging, "We have incurred significant losses since inception, including in the United States and major markets. We expect our operating expenses to increase significantly in the foreseeable future, and we may not achieve profitability."

The earning calls can be excruciating as investors drill down into the minutiae, but it's worth scanning the transcript, if one is available. Here's an example from a major athletic apparel brand that highlights the importance of the Chinese market and celebrity partnerships. Quarterly presentations, like this one from an event management website, can also provide a helpful company overview.

All of these items can usually be found on a company's website, in a section marked "Investor Relations" or "Investors." If you have a touch of arithmophobia and you have a corporate client, try a little aversion therapy. Ease into financial literacy by taking a peek at your client's annual report. You might actually find some of it interesting.

Ron Hutcheson is a managing director in Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ Washington office.