Ten principles for M&A change communications

With planning and careful thought, communicators can make the story of M&A transformation understandable, memorable, and even inspiring.

There is considerable M&A activity these days which presents a unique set of challenges for  chief communications officers impacted by such corporate change.

The following is a roadmap for CCOs to consider when architecting a change management program.

One, define your vision. It’s a complicated and fraught time for employees. So the first thing must be to define where we’re going. What is our vision for the new company?

Complexity is the enemy of change. Keeping it simple is easier said than done, but it’s never more critical. People cannot accept what they don’t understand. And without acceptance, they cannot change.

Two, address the cultural differences. Culture can’t be overlooked. It can be the difference between success and failure and each company has its own culture, including assumptions, preferences and blind-spots.

An inability to assess culture and bridge company differences can undermine the most thoroughly planned merger. Properly assessing the culture will help ensure stronger, long-term cultural integration.

Three, design for a mindset change. Most organizations understand that both enterprise M&A and functional integrations are difficult, complex, nuanced challenges, and they treat them as such.

All too often, however, they expect their traditional communications strategies to do the job of driving sustained enterprise change. That strategy doesn’t work because changing an organization’s behavior first requires a mindset change across the organization.

That means changing what employees believe, what their attitudes are about the newly formed company, and how they feel emotionally. Only with all three in place will they change their behavior.

Four, get to know the stakeholders. The importance of stakeholder mapping, profiling and targeting is perhaps never more essential than during an M&A effort. The effects of this change often incite stakeholders to ask highly personal questions.

Not only is segmentation vital to understanding the content needs of different stakeholder groups, it’s also critical to determining channel preferences, frequency needs, formats and timing.

Five, aggressively plan and stay on timeline. Timing and the coordination of messages will make or break the transition. Developing an aggressive communication plan and timeline and staying ahead of information will minimize anxiety and rumors. Internal marketing and information flow is as critical as external communications.

Six, start with a story and customize sparingly. M&A communication requires high levels of control, particularly in the alignment of internal and external comms.

A key principle is to work within a 360-degree narrative – a live story of the change that talks to the past, the present and the future organization that is being created. From this narrative, a message framework can be created and shared to allow all communicators to adopt a consistent, aligned voice, whatever the audience.

Seven, don’t ignore anxiety. It’s often easy to forget the most critical reality for employees during mergers: it is personal. Will I have a job? Will I like the job? Will I like the new company? Who will be my boss?

Employees and managers alike need to understand their roles in the new company. Mergers and acquisitions often breed fear and anxiety, even for high performers and the most efficient units.

Silence makes these emotions exponentially worse. So, talk. Talk often. Talk when you don’t yet have the answers. Talk about process. Talk about goals. Talk about feelings. Talk about excitement. Just don’t be quiet.

Eight, honesty and transparency drive confidence. Many questions will be raised before answers are available. Prepare for this by acknowledging it openly and providing a timeline of when responses can be expected.

The impact of feeling empowered and "in the know" is immense. Maintain a running list of questions and answers. An FAQ list ensures that talking points are consistent across the organization. Follow-up when answers are available to ensure trust is maintained throughout.

Nine, build buy-in through trusted voices. There is no replacement for a trusted voice. And in times of change, they are required. First, we must identify who they are and recruit them to the cause. They may be leaders or they may be line managers.

Networks of influence are complex, but mapping them can be critical to recruiting the voices we need to tell our story of change. Once we’ve found them and have them on board, we must ensure they’re well-informed and able to answer questions thoroughly and honestly.

Provide tools and talking points and reassure these champions of the importance of being honest about what is known and not known. Make sure they have information about when information will be available.

Ten, continuously listen and measure. The only way to judge effectiveness is to measure. It is critical to develop listening mechanisms within each audience group and use them continuously.

These are unconventional measurements, like leader opinions, testing with friends and families, social media forums, team meetings, pulse polls) combined with more formal mechanisms such as market research, investor surveys, employee engagement surveys.

The stakes are too high to trust any one measurement or indicator, so we must embrace a multidimensional approach.

We all know how hard it is to make the complicated simple. Large-scale change programs have great complexity and it’s the responsibility of communicators to make the story of transformation understandable, memorable and inspiring. Diligently following a proper pathway is an important step to assure such an outcome.

Bob Feldman is Vice Chair of ICF Next. He can be reached at bob.feldman@icfnext.com.

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