Disclose No Evil

In a much-watched Wall Street ritual, Warren Buffett will release his yearly letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway this weekend, marking the informal kickoff of annual-report season. The task shouldn’t be hard: Berkshire stock returned 21.4 percent in 2010. Other letter-writers aren’t so fortunate, such as BP CEO Bob Dudley, who will have to explain away the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. NEWSWEEK turned to annual-report consultants for suggestions on spinning some of the thorniest corporate issues.

The Company: BP

The Challenge
The explosion of its Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers, spilled 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and cost the company $40 billion.

The Spin
Good news, everyone! Most of the gulf cleanup is complete, and a report by the U.S. in January attributed the disaster to “multiple causes involving multiple parties”—i.e., not just BP. (And don’t forget, we replaced gaffe-prone CEO Tony Hayward.)

The Company: Massey Energy

The Challenge
In April an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal facility in West Virginia killed 29 miners.

The Spin
Look for Massey to play up its long-term safety record. It wouldn’t hurt to tweak federal regulators for failing to develop effective rules to protect miners. And did we mention our $8.5 billion merger with Alpha Natural Resources closing later this year?

The Company: Boeing

The Challenge
It still hasn’t delivered its new flagship 787 Dreamliner, originally scheduled for May 2008. Most recent glitch: an electrical fire in a November test flight.

The Spin
Like a student bringing home three A’s and an F, Boeing can sandwich the bad news in between updates on strong performance in other businesses.

The Company: Johnson & Johnson

The Challenge
A spate of recalls—including high-profile brands like Tylenol—has cost the company more than $900 million in lost sales.

The Spin
J&J needs to channel the corporate transparency that got it through the Tylenol cyanide tampering deaths in 1982. Say “Here’s what we’re doing to fix quality control”—and offer a strategy for fending off competition from private-label products.

The Company: Boston Scientific

The Challenge
It lost $1 billion in 2010, sales of key products like defibrillators and stents are sliding, and it has faced recalls as well as losses related to patent disputes.

The Spin
Sports fans know well the idea of a “rebuilding year.” Tell how the company has blockbuster products on the way—the equivalent of young talent on the farm team—and play up $1.5 billion from a recent divestiture that can be used for acquisitions.

The Company: GlaxoSmithKline

The Challenge
Faces thousands of lawsuits alleging it hid risks that its Avandia diabetes drug increases patients’ chances of heart attack and stroke. (Glaxo says it stands by the drug’s safety.)

The Spin
This too shall pass. Lay out how the company has reserved $6.4 billion to pay for the Avandia fiasco, and it’s settling cases quickly. Message: we’re moving on, and meanwhile we have cut costs, have diversified into vaccines, and are growing in emerging markets.

Join the Discussion