This paper investigates whether, before and during the global financial crisis, Italian firms have used financial key performance indicators graphs in the annual reports as impression management tools, to portray a more favourable picture of the firm’s performance than is warranted. This study shows that, during the financial crisis, firms have increased the number of graphs and decreased favourable distortions, although graphs continued to be designed inaccurately. The findings could reflect an increased public scrutiny on the firm’s performance, during the financial crisis. As a theoretical implication, this paper contributes to the existent financial reporting literature by showing that graphs are not necessarily used in line with an agency theory-based impression management, which is the dominant perspective to explain the graphs’ usage in the annual reports during periods of performance upturn. Moreover, it shows that the institutional context can affect voluntary disclosure practices at a firm-level. As a practical implication, this study suggests to annual reports’ readers not to necessarily consider managers as self-serving preparers in their graphical reporting strategies. The study also suggests accounting associations, audit firms and other regulatory bodies to create a set of guidelines for a correct graph’s use and design.
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