It is one thing being a PR professional with a tricky news
situation to manage. It is quite another when the same tricky news
situation directly affects your future.
In the world of mergers and acquisitions, the press office is just as
vulnerable as other departments. But like the Titanic band which
reputedly kept spirits up as the ship went down, PROs must occasionally
do their gritty professional duty while accepting that they might be on
the casualty list themselves.
In the last few weeks, Cable and Wireless Communications (C&WC) has
dissolved its PR division after the sale of its residential business to
NTL; a swathe of NatWest PR jobs have gone following the group’s sale to
Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS); and Rover’s PR function is undergoing a
shake-up after its sale by BMW to the Phoenix consortium.
Meanwhile German conglomerate Preussag has made a bid for Thomson Travel
Group (TTG), prompting Russell Amerasekera, the latter’s director of
group corporate communications, to announce his departure (PR Week, 9
’It would be naive to think that people in an acquisition do not
inevitably think: - what does it mean to me?’ says Chris Wermann,
current head of corporate affairs at Direct Line and soon to be RBS
deputy director of communications.
The way a company has handled such situations in the past can have a
direct bearing on how people - including PROs - react, according to
James Harkness, MD of Burson-Marsteller’s change communication
’It depends on the culture of that organisation, on what’s gone
People can remember what happened last time round. These things are
pretty traumatic and people do tend to focus on themselves,’ he
’There may be questions early on which you are not in a position to
answer,’ says Mike Holland, MD of Smye Holland Associates.
Conversely, there may be some questions whose answers are known only too
well - but cannot be revealed. For example, an agency working with a
merger company can be told of plans by senior management which directly
affect an in-house communications team. Unsurprisingly, this creates
tension and it appears to be all too common. ’It is certainly not
unusual in our experience,’ Holland says.
Commercial globalisation means that people are, or should be,
better-prepared than ever for change. Amerasekera certainly thinks so.
’It’s been so commonplace - mergers, cross-border alliances - so anyone
has to live with the fact that things change very quickly.’
And PROs simply get stuck into whatever action comes along, he says.
’Once you’re in the heat of battle, the only thing you’re worried about
is winning,’ agrees Howard Moody, group director of communications for
RBS. ’If you begin to focus on everything else, you have a small
It’s about being professional.’
’Any thoughts about your own personal position do tend to take second
place,’ Amerasekera continues. ’Your primary objective is to drive
forward the corporate agenda. It is practically impossible to manage
Inspiring words but others, including Roy Payne, former head of
corporate communications at C&WC, believe it is more complex that
Now director, Europe, information industries at Fleishman-Hillard, Payne
believes time must be taken with individual members of the press office
to find out what they want to do with their lives and careers
’You’ve got to keep the staff motivated because they are still picking
up the telephones,’ he explains. Relying on them simply to do their job
without a thought to the future is unreasonable, he says. Identifying
their concerns, helping them think through the issues and generally
offering support is vital.
Martin Graham-Scott, former head of C&WC’s broadcast PR, starts at UPC
Media in a business development role next week. ’From a personal
perspective we were aware of the changes that were likely to affect us
as a PR team but we had to continue business as usual,’ he says.
’All change creates uncertainty. My view is that there is always an up
side - it’s fear which becomes a debilitating factor,’ Payne
’But the process of change for most people isn’t a quick one. If you
take a relaxed attitude, you can do your job better. Don’t jump (into
another job) - think about what you want to do, where you are in your
There’s more work out there than there are people to do it.’
Of all the people in an organisation, PROs are probably the most
resistant to blithe notions that there will be no fallout from corporate
Cost savings, after all, are usually delivered by sacrificing
But as Moody says, PROs can do nothing about that. What they can do is
raise their game and catch the eye by putting in a strong performance in
a period of uncertainty: ’Performing really well is one of the best
insurance policies there is.’
It is a logical point. But, humans being humans, even the band on the
Titanic probably wanted to head for the lifeboats at some point.