Agony Aunt: how to navigate a merger when internal communications break down

The chairman of Cathcart Consulting gives her verdict on this and other professional conundrums.

Messy mergers: who’s steering the ship?

Why are PR agencies so hopeless at their own internal and external comms and PR? I work for a firm that is "merging" with another. We are told one thing internally and read another externally. One half of the merger is saying a lot and the other is saying nothing. It feels like a complete mess.

It has been said that there are no mergers – there are only acquisitions. I don’t know which side of the line you are sitting, but I’m sorry to read (yet again) of the frustration and anxiety this sort of disorganised communication causes. And not just for staff: clients will be picking up mixed messages and rivals rubbing their hands with joy.

All sorts of promises are made when "mergers" are planned: new opportunities and promotions for all, perfect synergy of skills, no perceivable conflicts, broad sunlit uplands… In reality, back-office economies (built into the deal at the start but never discussed in hard detail) mean that non-client-facing staff, administrators and the nice bloke(s) in accounts are the first to be cut, usually on the mergee’s side. The merger-maker (m-m) makes it clear that its own senior team really is The Senior Team.

A serious conflict is discovered between a difficult but well-known brand on the m-m side and a loyal, much-loved, less-well-known and not-very-large client on the mergee side: only one result there.

The internal board has gone from about 10 members to more than 20 and can’t function... the broad, sunlit uplands are looking further and further away. Meanwhile, the positive messages agreed at the start of the process are being pumped out enthusiastically by a relentlessly cheerful business development director with a hide like a rhino, while horrified employees polish their CVs and have drinks with their friends, who are then having non-attributable chats with their business journalist chums.

We would never let clients do it; why on earth we always think we can get away with it, I will never know.

If you are happy with the culture and mindset of the lead firm, stay and help the new entity flourish. As I have said before in this column: if something is inevitable, embrace it utterly. But if you feel at odds with the new senior team and promises have already been broken, move on.

Should I stay or should I go?

I have a middling position in the PR department of a highly rated FMCG company. I have been promoted once and like it here, but can’t see myself ever getting the top job in the department – unless I stay for another 10 years, which seems a bit unambitious. I don’t really want to leave, though. Help!

I reckon you have been on board for six or seven years and this might be your second job. You have done well to be promoted and there is probably stiff competition to get into the company. Have you learned as much as you ever will there? Is there a way to stay in a different capacity, one that would stretch you? Could you ask for an overseas transfer? If the answer is no – to those and any other questions you must have been asking yourself – then it is probably time for a change. Before you put the wheels in motion, have a constructive conversation with the boss about your worries. There may be something going on that you know nothing about, with a role that would offer fresh challenges, or that would make another change possible. Either way, you’re being as open and honest as possible with a good employer and can leave positively to take up a new challenge.

Got a problem? Contact Jackie at jackie.elliot@cathcartconsulting.com

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