Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had to come up with some best practices on M&A communications. I thought I’d share these and invite any comments or questions.
Though circumstances around every M&A situation will vary, there are certain best practices that can help ensure communications is credible and effective, and help organizations to navigate cultural and operational integration. Essentially, organizations need to clearly explain the rationale and implications of the M&A, and lay out a clear roadmap to help staff understand their role going forward. It’s also important to provide clarity around expected impact on staffing, culture and integration of workplace benefits and programs – these will be important concerns for most employees. Underlying the messaging, of course, there needs to be compelling reasons for employees to remain loyal and engaged through the transition period and beyond.
Here is a checklist of these key considerations:
- Focus on the rationale – One of the critical drivers to employee acceptance of any change message is the underlying rationale…why do we need to change? Why now? Why this way? What are the fundamental reasons for the merger or acquisition? The logic and credibility of this core argument will determine the success of the integration effort.
- Be timely – Many M&A situations raise questions about winners and losers – what brands will survive, what facilities might close, what leaders are promoted, etc. It’s important to confirm and communicate these facts in a timely, logical sequence to avoid uncertainty and anxiety among employees. Though some decisions may not be popular with all staff groups, it’s preferable to communicate these changes promptly than risk a sustained malaise or inertia among staff.
- What’s in it for me? – One of the critical elements required in any M&A communication effort is a clear indication of how employees across all regions and levels will benefit from the change. These benefits can be intangible (pride of global leadership, external recognition) or more practical (increased opportunity for career advancement, financial gains, increased security) but they need to be addressed prominently in the outreach. It won’t be good enough to demonstrate how the change is good for the company – you need to make the link between company gains and personal benefits.
- Be candid about implications – Beyond making a compelling case for change, leaders also need to be candid about the more negative or contentious implications from the M&A – such as restructurings or layoffs. Trying to avoid these tough issues will erode the credibility of the communication effort (and leadership team.)
- What will not change? – With talk of change and integration, most employees will be very interested in confirming what won’t be changing, particularly with regard to their daily jobs and more esoteric issues like culture. Will there be change to the core values, for example, or compensation strategy. If that’s the case, that needs to be emphasized in the communication effort. Confirming these surviving pillars – whatever they are — will provide some sense of continuity and security to employees.
- Dialogue vs. push – It’s particularly important during broad-scale change efforts (including M&As) to go beyond basic “push” communication tactics to fully engage employees in the topic and drive understanding and support. The communication effort should engage the employees in the change process through discussion and participation where appropriate, rather than just as recipients of the messages. There should be ample opportunities for staff questions. If the old adage is you cannot over-communicate during times of change, I would adapt that to add you also can’t listen too much. It will also be critical to engage managers as active participants in the communication process. It goes without saying that social media provides rich opportunities to support this conversation, so communicators really have no excuse in this regard.
- Plan beyond the announcement – Many companies leverage broad, multi-year internal marketing campaigns to direct and support post-merger integration. Thinking beyond the initial announcement helps package a complex set of messages into a compelling, logical thematic framework that can appeal to employees and provide a sense of continuity. A well crafted campaign can also help to address the points above – for example defining the vision but also reinforcing the “how” or culture – through engaging collateral and messaging.
- Integrate internal and external messages – Whatever organizations do around M&A communication, they need to ensure their directives and messages are consistent across audiences, particularly related to marketing or staffing messages. Not everything communicated internally needs to be shared or identical to external messages (for example internal messages exhorting additional effort may not be relevant or appropriate for customers) but they need to be aligned and based on a common platform. In a similar vein, any communication plan needs to carefully coordinate outreach with employees from both companies involved.
- Engage hearts and minds – While it’s critical to have solid empirical evidence to make the case for a merger or acquisition, too often leaders assume facts alone will sway the organization. To increase chances of success, communicators should ensure their change program appeals to the emotions of their employees. That can be done through the messaging, packaging and tactical plan. The best change programs have an almost visceral, personal element.
- Devil in the details – As with any organizational directive, employees must understand how they need to do their jobs after the announcement…how they personally have to change. A critical element of any M&A program is clearly defining what employees at all levels and roles need to do differently – whether it’s behavior or process. If the scope of change is massive, the company will likely need to engage in substantial training and briefing programs.
- Focus on customers – Despite an obvious emphasis on communicating with staff, it’s important to keep in mind employees need to remain productive and engaged during any transition period. Any communication program, therefore, needs to avoid becoming a major distraction and should concentrate on helping staff do their jobs despite all the changes.
- Measure your progress – As with any communication effort, it’s important to monitor the reach and impact of any program in order to measure effectiveness and make necessary adjustments to messaging or tactics. In many M&A cases, organizations introduce additional metrics to ensure they are closely tracking their progress.
What do you think about these best practices?