How to Communicate Internally for Success in a Merger – Part 1

The truth, and the context we need to consider, is that there is no such thing as a merger. There are only hostile and friendly takeovers.

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There is nothing as energising for communicators than a merger. The pace can be electric, the role of communicator takes centre stage. The constant calls from media, the very strong elastic between the CEO and the lead communicator to ensure immediate attention, and the work required to get the messages and words right, all make it arguably the most demanding work a communicator can do in their career. I have been fortunate to have leadership roles in two mergers, from very different perspectives; first, as the head of corporate communications, and second, as a head of internal communications.

The challenge is great, and the rewards of success are sweet. At the beginning of the merger, there is little time for sleep or rest, and business as usual takes a back seat to the task of dancing with the media, first to avoid comment and later to inform the world of a momentous occasion in the life of the company. At the end, in the event there is a new name and brand for the newly merged company, watching fellow employees cheer as a new brand is unveiled for the first time can be memorable.

In between life can be a rollercoaster, with uncertainty over whether the merger will be completed for sure, the new org chart, the necessary secrecy of brand development and everything else challenging the communicator to perform to the max. The attention during all this time tends to be external. The employees are at worse often left in the dark, or at best placed second in priority. Yet, when all the excitement is over, and the investment banker and media circus has left town, what are you left with? The employees are the ones who are expected to embrace and live the new business and brand, but they have been left at the previous station.

The truth, and the context we need to consider, is that there is no such thing as a merger. There are only hostile and friendly takeovers. In this context, there is fear on both sides. Speak to both sides of the merger and you will sniff out fears on both sides, though admittedly less on the stronger side of the deal, but even then there are reasons to be fearful.

Just like all other aspects of the business, internal communications needs are greatest during a merger or acquisition. The org chart is often ill-defined, and employees are left wondering who their new boss will be, and from what side of the merger will they come. There is mutual suspicion. In integration teams, those involved may often be talking themselves literally out of a job. In reorganising the new department structure, the leaders may themselves be out-structured, even the head of communications!

The suspicion and uncertainty is both endemic and systemic. Employees cope by living in a tension between what they know and what they fear. They know for the moment they have a job, but fear their job will be gone tomorrow. They know they have a boss, but fear a new boss will come in from the other side of the deal. They know the culture and “how things are done around here,” but fear the culture will fracture or be replaced, and things will “go downhill from here.”

What is the heart of these very real and understandable concerns? Lack of trust. What is the solution? Building trust.

Look out on Monday morning for Part 2 of this blog… featuring the Seven Steps to merger heaven!

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