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Merger Communication: What to do, and NOT to do

There’s something about mergers and acquisitions that seems to bring out the hand-wringers. So much potential disaster, so little real guidance. Why is that?

On the surface, the communication challenge is pretty straightforward. You’re bringing two organizations together, typically competitors, but not always. There are a raft of issues that need management. But it’s just that—management! Competent project managers know that repeatable processes are critical. But so are simple rules to govern all of the situations that don’t fall exactly into the neat buckets on one’s Gantt Chart.

Our Sean Williams is a veteran of eight (8!!!) mergers and two spin-offs, and was previously the head of employee communication at two large organizations. Here are his five simple rules to help any communicator be more effective when it’s time to put on the merger comms hat.

Employees are people

At the outset, employee concerns are going to be top of mind for them. They won’t much care about impact on customers immediately; they’ll care about changes to their jobs, benefits, pay, taxes, etc. And, of course, you don’t know any of that early on. Plus, they don’t believe that you don’t know. Trust is broken almost immediately for the acquired organization, and it’s going to take time to rebuild it. The tendency (in publicly traded companies) is to use the merger press release as the template for employee communications. DON’T DO IT. Yes, a high proportion of employees will be stockholders, but that’s not how most see themselves. They’re employees, and right now they’re scared. [Learn how to do effective planning on the fly with our AMMO method.]

Open channels quickly

Let employees ask the same questions repeatedly. Tell people how many times you’ve been asked the question. For example, “we received this question 11 times in our merger email, and four times on the merger voicemail line. Here’s what we know now…” Keep repeating the answer. Open every incoming vehicle you can muster—discussion boards, email, voicemail, face to face meetings with leaders—and publish the questions and answers. Respect this process, even though it’s tedious. Acknowledging the questions that are being asked is critical to demonstrating that the new organization is listening. Social media should get a close look—it’s a vehicle for discussion, which is what we want early. The lawyers and compliance folks will worry about that—but stick to your guns. Just make some rules about what is and isn’t appropriate and if nothing else, communicate that!

Tell what you know, and why

There’s an uncomfortable place at which nearly all mergers start—the deal is announced, but is subject to various approvals before closing. Neither customers nor employees are likely to know the difference between the two. In many cases, the acquirer isn’t permitted to write or speak directly to the acquired’s employees, they have to work through the that communication team. We need to push to be open. Say why we’re going into a quiet period. Say why it’s the way it is. Say why it’s taking “so long” to complete. Just give people regular updates and a schedule for critical decisions.

Send leadership out to meet people

One personal example from Sean: When one acquisition was announced, that morning the CEO was in the acquired company’s HQ for an informal meeting and conference call with managers. He certainly didn’t have answers to most of the questions uppermost in people’s minds, but his arrival put a human face on the acquiring company. There’s a tendency to “focus on the work” and forget about the axiom that you lead people, and merely manage budgets. Your merger will go poorly if the leadership hides out!

Remember: You’re doing business today

Your employees need to know that they are still accountable for their work–mergers are a terrible distraction, and they often lead to organizations becoming “internally focused” rather than attending to their customers. Reinforcing that customers are depending on them appeals to employees’ sense of purpose. Besides, being known as someone who kept his or her focus on the business is a good way to keep your job.

One bonus tip

Employees (and suppliers, customers, prospects and members of the community, for that matter) want to know what is changing, what the objective of the change is, the reasons behind the change and how it will affect them. (CORE from our Face2Face Communication Program) If you leave out one of those elements, what happens?

They will make up the answer for themselves. That’ll be great, right?

Dedicate yourself and your organization to these principles, and you’ll be golden. Good luck!