CAMPAIGNS: Business-as-usual stance brings result - Corporate PR

Client: Threadneedle Asset Management PR Team: Penrose Financial/in-house teams at Thread-needle and American Express Campaign: Acquisition of Threadneedle Timescale: Mid-May - end of July 2003 Budget: In excess of £25,000

After months of rumours within the financial market, on 16 June American Express sealed an agreement with Zurich Financial Services Group to buy the British fund manager Threadneedle Asset Management for £340m.

The firm was considered a major player, with £44bn of assets under management and more than 200,000 UK private investors.

The sale of Threadneedle followed a major restructuring at Zurich Financial Services Group, which last autumn announced it was cutting 4,500 jobs as part of a plan to shore up its financial position.

Maintaining stakeholder confidence during the sale was therefore seen as crucial to the success of the deal. The Threadneedle in-house PR team hired Penrose Financial, without a competitive pitch, to work alongside it, and to help manage stakeholder communications during the acquisition.

Objectives

To make certain staff, clients and intermediaries were assured business would not be affected by the acquisition, and that it would not have a negative impact on staff or clients. To explain that the Threadneedle brand would remain a valued asset after the acquisition.

To keep a consistent hold on the acquisition situation during a period of constant leaks and speculative articles, which meant keeping staff, clients and the press informed as swiftly as possible.

Strategy and Plan

Three teams were set up to handle a cross section of media on the announcement day. Consistent and timely messages were vital, and in light of previous leaks, and the damage further leaks could do to internal confidence, a tight grip on when these messages were released was maintained. This was the key communications challenge for the PR teams.

A media relations team, with experience in both retail and institutional fund management, worked to ensure all the media relations were managed to the best advantage for both Threadneedle and American Express.

Internal comms was another key element of the campaign. The PR teams ensured that staff were briefed just prior to any announcements. This would allow them to deal more effectively with their clients and communicate the company's key messages.

Message management was undertaken using a detailed audience breakdown, to ensure the roll-out of the media relations strategy was co-ordinated with communication to clients, consultants, independent financial advisers and staff.

On the day of the announcement, the media teams went into action, with a senior representative from both Threadneedle and American Express in each team. Team one covered the major US and UK nationals, the second covered the UK personal finance and trade press, and the third team was in charge of the European press.

The day consisted of intensive telephone and one-to-one interviews. Nothing was left to chance, as the teams prepared for these interviews with detailed rehearsals of questions and answers - aiming to anticipate all the angles the media might try to cover - and agreed the responses in advance.

As soon as the deal was announced, the PR team pursued high-profile opportunities with key trade and national press. Follow-up meetings were also arranged in Paris, Geneva, Amsterdam, Zurich and Frankfurt to reach a wider audience, and a steady flow of positive news on business wins and fund flows was arranged to reinforce the message of 'business as usual'.

Measurement and Evaluation

Media coverage of the deal was generally positive and related the key messages. Highlights included three articles in the Financial Times, including a front-page story, and coverage in all other national daily broadsheets.

Many of the headlines were also positive, reinforcing the messages of the PR campaign, such as 'Threadneedle brand to stay' (Investment Week, 23 June), 'Thumbs-up for Amex Threadneedle purchase' (Professional Adviser, 18 June), 'Threads stands defiant on control of US funds' (Investment Adviser, 23 June) and 'Threadneedle plays name game again' (Financial Times, 17 June).

In total, the merger was covered in 43 publications in the UK and 60 in continental Europe. According to Penrose managing director Gay Collins, the broadcast audience was deemed 'not a key audience', and so, although some broadcasters were contacted on the day, no interviews were arranged.

Results

The messages to the market regarding the 'business as usual' theme were picked up and published by the press. The Guardian personal finance correspondent Rupert Jones said: 'What was crucial was the fact that Threadneedle said it will keep the management team, the chief executive and the brand. It seemed fairly credible to me that the company would remain unchanged.'

In addition, Professional Pensions magazine journalist Geoff Ho added: 'Threadneedle confirmed exactly what the PROs had told me. It seemed to ring true, even though I am usually pretty sceptical about what the financial services sector says.'

June, the month of the acquisition announcement, was the best month for sales in two years. Retail fund sales in the period during and following the deal were up 60 per cent on the same period in the previous year.

Since the acquisition, the number of opportunities to present for new business has remained high. Pitches have come via ten different firms of consultants and two direct enquiries. They cover a wide range of asset classes, from UK and global equities and bonds to property.

In regards to staff, there have been no redundancies or resignations.

Staff, press and client feedback has been that the acquisition was well-received as a positive step for both Threadneedle and American Express.

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