Consider the following scenario: your client sets a date for their business marriage to another. You work through due diligence, heads and final agreement and the signing date is subsequently set. How do you now advise your client on managing the communication of this new union to maximise the outcome for the new combined business, the staff, and referral sources, customers and clients?
As good communication is essential to successful mergers and acquisitions (M&As), communication management must be considered during the preliminary stages to set the scene and help achieve the potential for positive messaging. Some businesses – technology companies in particular – often have a marketing strategy that constructs and strengthens their corporate profile with a view to enhancing their negotiation position long before suitors enter the scene.
Here are 10 simple steps to help you advise your clients, or implement within your own organisation, as you work through the M&A process.
1. Understand the context
There can be a tendency to use M&A as a generic heading, rarely distinguishing between the merger and the acquisition. In reality, businesses can find themselves in a variety of scenarios as an equal or unequal partner in a merger; an acquired or acquiring party; divested from a parent group, or the parent company itself. These differing scenarios will shape both the nature and tone of the communication and how it is likely to be received.
Understanding the background that led to the change is key. Was the move hostile or welcomed? Was it voluntary or enforced by a regulatory body? You should also assess the level of surprise about the merger or acquisition. The better you understand the context and circumstances, the easier it will be to segment your audience and deliver tailored messages that meet their needs.
2. Plan ahead
Before you begin to devise a communication plan, listen. This is a critical exercise that will help you understand the issues, opportunities and sensitivities. Your communication plan should cover the ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ elements of the change process, but this is often easier said than done. Factors such as employees’ terms of employment, industry regulations and stock market listings could potentially influence your timescales and shape how and when you start communicating.
3. Identify your audiences
Segmenting your audience is important, as it will allow you to remain on message. Audiences of each business frequently fall into the following categories: staff; customers of both businesses; prospects and referral sources; regulatory bodies; and media. Further segmentation of the customer base is often required, with key customers sometimes requiring one-to-one meetings or pre-warning from depending on the circumstances. It is also important to review regulatory notice requirements as this can impact on timing.
Leaders should also carefully consider the implications for staff. Employee communication should be undertaken in partnership with Human Resources to ensure staff are adequately protected and managed in line with their terms of employment. If an organisation manages employee communication well, all those affected by the news will understand why the transaction happened and be in a better position to reassure customers where necessary.
4. Create your plan
Although things can always change right up until the last minute, a detailed plan outlining how information will be cascaded to your audiences and when will allow you to minimise speculation, misunderstanding and the inevitable fear of change.
Understanding the strategic and political landscape is the first thing to address, so there is a clear context on which to build your plan. Circulating the plan to relevant stakeholders will also ensure that all members of the leadership team deliver a consistent message.
There is sometimes a concern about who needs to communicate with whom, particularly when the merging businesses have mutual customers. A prudent approach is to over-communicate rather than under-communicate, particularly if sensitivities are involved.
5. Manage the message
For every element of communication, you should determine: what your objectives are; when in the process it is being released; how it could be received; and how you would like your audience to react. Develop strong relationships with front-line staff and sales teams in both organisations as this doing so will facilitate communication across groups and give you a crucial insight into the perceptions and behaviors of your audiences.
Messages can be both overestimated and underestimated, so gauge your organisation’s relevance early in the process. For example, organisations sometimes overestimate their importance to customers or clients. Over-the-top communication supported by expensive advertising or profiling can subsequently do more harm than good to a brand.
6. Choose brand advocates
The person chosen to front all communications should demonstrate strong and confident leadership and a clear vision for the future. It is important that you pick the right people to communicate the message, and media training is advised – even for the most accomplished communicators.
7. Create internal advocates
Successful mergers and acquisitions require buy-in and support from staff and stakeholders. To earn that support, explain the reasons for the merger and what it means for the future of their role and the organisation as a whole. Develop a set of clear messages for use from day one, and tailor them to each group based on their needs.
Once you start sharing information, it is important to remain consistent throughout the process. Consistency will ensure your position is made clear and will build confidence, whereas any hint of confusion can lead to false assumptions of chaos and secrecy. It is also important to communicate even when there is little or no progress to report – doing so will prevent the rumour mill taking the lead.
8. Coordinate the message
Regardless of who takes the lead in the merger process, it is important that both organisations work together to plan and deliver all communications. Timing and messaging must be coordinated and care taken to ensure that overlapping audiences receive information in the right way – don’t double up without knowing it and don’t let anyone slip through the gaps.
9. Think beyond the merger
Reinforce the vision for the organisation and be sure that any changes to the brand and messaging arising from the merger or acquisition have been fully adopted throughout the new entity. The communication plan should run beyond the merger or acquisition date, and this gives the organisation the opportunity to reassure customers and other stakeholders that it is either business as usual, or things have changed for the better.
10. Build two-way, social communication channels
No single factor leads to a successful communication experience in M&A circumstances. The above points should be taken into account when developing your plans but there are two further elements that should be integrated. Firstly, build social interaction into the plan and create situations where people are given time to get to know each other. This takes away the fear of the unknown and builds trust.
Secondly, communication shouldn’t come solely from the top down. To be effective, communication should also come from the bottom up, giving people the opportunity to voice their thoughts, hopes and concerns throughout the process.
About Mary Cloonan
With almost 20 years marketing experience, Mary now runs Marketing Clever which specialises in financial, technology and professional services market development strategies and tactics.
Mary previously worked with Bank of Ireland, Elavon and a number of leading accountancy practices including Baker Tilly Ryan Glennon and Russell Brennan Keane.
This article was first published in Accountancy Ireland in December 2015, Vol 47.
[email protected] – 086 8227228 – www.marketingclever.com