News Analysis: Staying professional to meet merger demands - In a merger or acquisition situation, many in-house PR people have to deliver the corporate line knowing that their own jobs are on the line

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.

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

June).



’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

practice.



’It depends on the culture of that organisation, on what’s gone

before.



People can remember what happened last time round. These things are

pretty traumatic and people do tend to focus on themselves,’ he

says.



’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

problem.



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

both agendas.’



Inspiring words but others, including Roy Payne, former head of

corporate communications at C&WC, believe it is more complex that

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

post-change.



’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

continues.



’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

career.



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

action.



Cost savings, after all, are usually delivered by sacrificing

people.



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.



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