What it takes to communicate a merger

Ten things you need to know about communicating during mergers and acquisitions. Video

The biggest mistake communicators make when a company’s going through a merger, or being acquired?

“Not being prepared for an announcement of this complexity,” explains Jeffrey Block, associate director for Thomson Reuters Strategic Research. What often happens, says Block, is that “different parties get different information—customers hear one message, and investors hear another.”

Another big problem, says Block, occurs when PR gets pushed out of the way as executives navigate around a merger or acquisition, “even though they’re the most important part of the communications process,” says Block.
As part of Thomson Reuters’ new report, “Corporate Communications Strategies During Mergers & Acquisitions,” Block offers a top 10 list of steps for coordinating messages and making sure no one’s left out of the process.
(Download the report here.)

1. Organize an internal communications/integration task force. The members of the task force “can tailor the broader message as to how it pertains to employees and customers,” says Block. “You’re cascading the message from senior management, all the way down to the sales force.”

2. Conduct a cultural assessment to find out how employees are used to acquiring information. “People are creatures of habit in terms of communication,” Block says. “The old company might have sent out weekly e-mails about what’s going on and the new company says ‘no’ to weekly e-mails.”

Jeffrey Block critiques how InBev and Anheuser Busch communicated its merger.

The change is bound to build resentment among employees who wonder why they’re being cut off. Ask questions about traditional methods of communications at the company you’re buying or merging with, in order to help ease anxieties within the newly blended staff.

3. Hire a PR firm. Bring in the hired guns, “especially if there’s going to be a high level of turnover, or a high level of conflict,” says Block. The more you expect fireworks, the more you may need extra assistance for PR projects you can’t handle internally (like talking to labor unions).

4. Create a list of short-term goals. Getting things done quickly and making some interim accomplishments can help keep up morale at a time when different audiences are watching to see how the company, or companies, handle the change.

“For example, make sure Web site updates are handled right away,” says Block. Checking off some simple tasks at the outset can help keep up the sense of urgency with the communications team. Otherwise, everyone is likely to get bogged down by the big jobs.

5. Create a cross-organizational communications team. “For instance, take some sales managers from the target company,” suggest Block. Bringing in members of other parts of the companies can help the team identity possible problems or conflicts. “M&A experiences can be shared,” says Block. In addition, the shared team can “essentially become the new, rebranded corporate culture.”

6. Hold frequent round-table discussions with legal, investor relations and PR. “These discussions can keep all parties abreast of how the deal is being perceived by employees, clients, the media, and shareholders, and identify opportunities and pitfalls,” says Block.

7. Distribute employee surveys and share the results and the changes they may have initiated. “If employees don’t feel like they’re getting enough information, they’re likely to walk out the door,” warns Block.

8. Set up separate Web sites that can be accessed by customers and employees. These sites can’t and shouldn’t replace regular, live updates from senior executives about the state of the merger or acquisition. However, says Block, “They provide a haven for employees and customers to find frequently asked questions and query senior management with their concerns.”

9. Consider using Web 2.0 applications, such as wikis and blogs, as part of an internal merger/acquisition Web site. These features are user-driven and interactive, says Block—and, even better, they’re low-cost and easy to deploy.

10. Make sure you’re using the appropriate medium for content distribution. “Since a merger is a nonroutine situation, you don’t want to make all your announcements through the company newsletter,” says Block. Explore other, interactive ways to talk to key audiences, such as webinars where listeners can submit questions.

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