An event of acquiring another company is momentous for all the stakeholders of the merging entities. It evokes many different emotions and questions. It takes up significant amount of management time in both the organizations. There is a sort of frenzy around trying to address all the concerns. I have personally been through two such changes in a span of as many years and have been a first-hand witness to some trying times. I discovered that one key positive enabler in such times is communication. Incidentally, in each of those instances I was part of the teams responsible for communication. I realized there were no standard frameworks that we could learn from. We had to work on our communication strategy based on the experience present around the table.
An acquisition is primarily driven by the financial objectives- does it help increase the market size, does it bring new clients, does it help increase the geographic reach, add a product into the portfolio etc. The entire process is largely driven by the CFO and the Legal team along with the CEOs office. The process is very closely held by a few people, owing to the sensitive nature of such decisions. Aspects related to the operating culture or organisation processes while evaluated, are usually secondary to the financial goals. However in reality, the many aspects related to people and various non financial dimensions have a great impact on the success of integration.
During any acquisition, the marketing and communications team comes into the picture towards the end when the two parties are ready to make the announcement. This means, they have to quickly figure out the how, what, why, when and where and be able to answer all the possible questions. Usually the time available to put the strategy and execution in place before the entire plan can be set in motion can vary from a couple of days to a mere couple of hours. So what should one do? Here are some things I learned, and especially the second time around. This time the acquiring company had a structured approach which helped the integration process- after all they had done this over 40 times.
There are three primary dynamics to the communication: the Story, the Process and the Symbols.
This is the foundational pillar for communication. The purpose of the story is to offer clarity and enlist support and participation of all involved in the integration process.
Tell the story as is. Make it real and simple. It should answer the basic questions like: why we are doing this, what is the benefit for of doing this, what will change (brand, go to market strategy, head quarter), what will remain the same, what is valued the most in the joined entity, who will lead some things, what are the values that are common and when will they hear more on the topic. And all of this has to be simple and meaningful to each of the stake holders.
Create a story for all. The employees, the clients and the investors are all affected by the decision of a merger and each one is anxious at different levels. Story should be created keeping in mind all stakeholders. It has to provide a win-win reasoning for all.
Answer the key questions. The stakeholders: All have questions and different concerns: employee about his/her job, the client about the project/contract and the investor about the money. Story must answer questions uppermost on everyone’s mind. All should experience it as answering the questions close to their heart.
While this sounds absolutely common sense, remember this has to be developed and agreed upon by both the companies in a very short time- usually a few hours. So working on this is pretty much like a war room.
In listed entities, there is a regulatory requirement to inform the stock exchange/regulator first. Once the relevant regulations are met, the question of who should be informed and what sequence, arises.
Inform all stakeholders simultaneously. Ideally all the stake holders of both the entities– employees, clients and investors, should be informed simultaneously. Especially in today’s connected world it takes only a few minutes for news to travel. Stake holders should learn from the respective organizations rather than from “breaking news”.
Equip the leadership to tell the story. In parallel, prepare a set of key leaders in both the organizations on the key messages and how to address queries that would come to them. The most important thing here is to acknowledge the questions on everyone’s mind. Have an answer for most of the common questions from employees and clients (usually the investors are managed by a specific team who is equipped to handle them). Also send information packs with standard set of messages to employees across both the organizations. This equips them to answer questions to the outside world
Provide face to face communication. Next would be to meet as many people as possible in person, at least all the key leadership teams in each of the business units/geographies that will be impacted. I have seen town hall kind of meetings work extremely well as they are more personal and the questions are answered in an open forum. This way all receive the same message. This could be an e-document or a microsite with all the details. Simultaneously create a site on the company intranet where employees can post their questions, concerns and comments.
When the leadership of both organisations dedicate personal time and interface with as many as stakeholders as possible, in an open manner, it establishes a great foundation of trust and goodwill.
While it is important to create the story and a communication plan, what really makes the difference is how it is done. This sets the tone and the direction of the new operating culture.
Build the plan and execute it together. It is important that teams from both sides work on the integration communication plan. This sends out a message of being seen as equals rather than one side being in command. It also helps understand both sides better and the plan is built such that it will work well on either side. Ensure that any public platform that is created- press conference, investor meet, customer meet etc- has key people from both firms to address questions, and that both get equal space for telling their new story.
Create a visual symbol. A graphic picture that shows the coming together of the brands. Use this in all communication to represent that which is new. Focus on the attributes represented by both organisations, that contribute to the strength of the new entity.
Use language consciously. Always use phrases like “coming together”, “joining of” etc as they are more empathetic. The words and phrases we use communicate the intentions very subtly, yet profoundly.
The above are symbols that reinforce the fact that both companies are keen on making this a success.
During the entire process, someone from the communication team of both the firms must be part of the integration committee. He/she needs to be fully aware of the progress. It is important to follow up with key messages on the progress from time to time and communicate the early successes of integration. It is quite possible that the story might change once the reality of integration sets in. However it is important to stay transparent and convey the additions to the story.
While a successful integration is dependent on many factors, a good communication during and post the event, will greatly contribute to the success of integration. When people understand the context, glimpse the potential and experience the symbols, integration is set for greater success.