How to successfully communicate a merger
Summary of Margaret Oscar’s presentation at the Memcom Conference 2023. Margaret is an internal communications expert at strategic communications agency Agenda. The advice below draws on her extensive experience of organisational change projects.
For most associations, there’s usually a time when the notion of merger arises. Whether it’s to strengthen the current organisation, to manage a decline or to avoid being taken over, mergers throw up as many challenges as opportunities.
During our Memcom session on successful mergers, colleagues from Agenda asked participants what worried them the most. They told us: finding the right organisation; keeping their members and staff; and keeping their organisation’s unique identity.
In this blog, we’ll consider how to engage your internal stakeholders not only to encourage staff to stay, but also to model your new culture from an early stage and to build colleagues into merger advocates with members.
Before any announcements are made externally, you need to look at what's happening internally. Pull together a SWAT team featuring staff from each area of the business to help you manage the reputation of the merger. These individuals will understand how their people are feeling, as well as how those feelings are likely to impact performance. The SWAT team can help you decide what the external narrative is going to be, what's going to be practical and what isn't going to be practical, the whys of what you're doing, as well as the what.
Control the narrative
Co-creating the solution to the narratives, and any possible issues that are going to come up, within the organisation as a result of staff hearing about the merger is crucial. It's really important that you share those issues with the people in that SWAT team who are going to help you decide how best to communicate the story. Don't underestimate the power of the ownership that comes with co-creating the solutions to a problem.
Remember, you are building a reputation for your business and this merger from the inside out, not the other way around. At the end of the day employee advocacy is more powerful than anything that goes out in the media, and is a communication channel in its own right. You can run the greatest campaign in the world, but if the employees are telling the public something completely different, who do you think they're going to believe?
Consistency of messaging regarding the whys and what you expect to happen is key in both internal and external comms. Once you have this agreed internally, make sure that your team leaders and managers are armed with all the tools necessary: the narrative, core messages, any Q&As, so that when they speak to their people individually, they're all singing from the same hymn sheet.
If people hear conflicting information from one department to another, the internal audience will become more unsettled and come up with their own interpretations. That’s when the risk of leaks and gossip arises, and we can't allow that to happen.
Make sure there is an internal platform for feedback throughout the process so that any concerns or issues can be raised, or solutions can be proposed. Listen when somebody tells you that something isn't working, act on it, and work with them to make it better. Temperature check the mood on a regular basis, for instance, via pulse surveys at the very least once a quarter.
Minimising staff loss. While there's always going to be some fallout, there are things that you can do. In the absence of information, people will always assume the worst. Keep your staff informed using that SWAT team. Make sure that communication works both ways, that you are listening as much as you are broadcasting information.
Making sure that that information is consistent is important to maintaining trust. If things change as the merger progresses, which they inevitably will, keep the internal narrative and Q&As updated.
Transparency also helps build trust. There's nothing wrong with saying to your people, “We can't discuss that particular aspect right now, there are legal issues being worked out. But I promise we will come back to you, as soon as we're able to.” People will understand if that’s the case.
Whatever is going on, your staff have to hear it from you first. There is nothing worse than your people finding out what's happening to them by reading it in the press.
Segment the internal audience. Understanding how people’s motives vary by role, department or location allows you to tailor your messaging to make sure that you are reassuring each and every one of those different segments and mindsets within your business. People will be asking ‘What's in it for me?’ especially when they're deciding whether to stay or go, so let them know and be clear in your answer.
The organisational culture plays a really huge part in this. If people do not feel psychologically safe or able to speak their mind, they won't trust anything you tell them, no matter how hard you're working at it.
So if you're at the beginning of a merger process, this is an opportunity to make sure that upfront, you show and demonstrate values. That needs to come from the leadership downwards, throughout the whole process.
Ultimately, none of the above works without an internal communications team or person in place. They are the internal engine behind the merger, so keep them close through the entire process.