5 rules for simplifying merger communications

How to make the process less confusing and frustrating for employees.

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

On the surface, the communication challenge is straightforward: you’re bringing two organizations together, typically competitors. That creates a raft of issues that need management. But it’s just that—management!

Here are five simple rules to help any communicator be more effective when it’s time to put on the merger communications hat.

1. Remember that employees are people. At the outset, employee concerns are going to be top of mind for them. They don’t care about the impact on customers, they care about whether their jobs, benefits, pay, taxes, etc., are changing. And, of course, you don’t know any of that early on. But they don’t believe that you don’t know. Trust is broken almost immediately for the target 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.

2. Open channels quickly. Go ahead and let employees ask the same questions. Tell them how many times you’ve been asked the question (e.g., “we received this question 11 times in our merger e-mail, and four times on the merger voicemail line. Here’s what we know now…”), and keep repeating the answer. Open every incoming channel you can muster—discussion boards, e-mail, 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 demonstrates that the new organization is listening. Social media should get a close look—it’s a vehicle for discussion, which is what you want early.

3. 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 target’s employees, but must work through its communication team. We need to push to be open. Say why you’re going into a quiet period. Say why it’s the way it is. Say why it’s taking so long to complete. Give people regular updates and a schedule for critical decisions.

4. Send leadership to meet people. When PNC Bank announced its purchase of National City Corporation in October 2008, PNC CEO Jim Rohr was in Cleveland, Ohio, that morning for an informal meeting and conference call with managers. He 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.

5. Remember that you’re still doing business. 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.

Sean Williams is CEO of Communication AMMO.

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