Eden is president of Gillott Communications and bestselling author of three books, including “A Business Owner’s Guide to Crisis PR.”
When a potential merger is in the works, you might start to act differently. It’s natural to alter behavior when undergoing a change or stressful situation. Still, I’ve found that this can signal that something is off and cause anxiety, reduce engagement and erode productivity. All of these can negatively impact your customer’s experience and make it harder for you to convince your employees to buy in to the company’s new vision.
As a strategic and crisis communications consultant, I partner with companies during a merger or acquisition to reassure their employees and other stakeholders. By collaborating with the company’s HR and legal teams, we create campaigns that engage employees, drive business and increase shareholder value during a time that many companies fall short.
While no two mergers are identical and each requires a specialized approach, here are some trends I’ve spotted throughout my career:
The inner-circle: Control and anticipate leaks.
The more people who are in the “inner circle” when figuring out the details of a merger, the higher risk for premature leaks.
Count on speculation and the rumor mill. Instead of ignoring it, address the issues raised. Even though there’s a limit to the amount of detail you can give, it’s essential to acknowledge that uncertainty can be frustrating and let your employees know that you are listening and hear their concerns.
Manage expectations: A merger is not a cakewalk.
Your employees will take their cues from you. If you sound unsure or appear to be hiding something, it’ll feed into the speculation. Leadership also needs to be unified in their goal and send a consistent message. Otherwise, the division from the top will filter down throughout the ranks and create conflict.
While you want to be reassuring, don’t go overboard by painting an idyllic utopia sans effort on everyone’s part. Overly positive announcements that aren’t in touch with reality will not pass the sniff test, which can cause people to lose trust in believing that what you tell them is true. Being honest and direct when handling delicate issues buys a lot of goodwill.
Milestone road map: Figure out what’s important to the merger’s success.
Gather the decision-makers and brainstorm all of the events that will need to be planned for and what communications need to occur in order for the merger to be successful. Major milestones vary from company to company, but in my experience, they typically move through closing the chapter for the old company to Day 1 of the new entity and the future beyond. From the get-go, avoid using an “us vs. them” mentality because it will creep into your messaging.
Two-way messaging: Keep things clear, consistent and evolving.
Merger communications is a conversation, not a series of orders. Treat your employees how you’d like to be treated. Your employees might belong to distinct subgroups that require different key messages. For example, managers and department leads will have various set issues and concerns than those who don’t have anyone reporting to them.
Don’t leave room for your stakeholders to panic unnecessarily. Anticipate questions and concerns ahead of time, and make sure they’re addressed. You want to offer clarity and guidance before, during and after the merger.
Anticipate that people process the change at different rates and with varying levels of enthusiasm. Be understanding, and avoid the attitude of “get with the program or get out.”
Listen to feedback, take what you’ve heard and adjust your strategy accordingly.
Paint a picture: Answer, ‘Where do I fit in all of this?’
Employees will need guidance on the new organizational structure. They’ll want to know if and how they fit into the new organization. Who reports to whom? Which guidelines and processes do they follow? How are they ensuring that the products and services will be handled?
There will be some key employees who might need additional attention or care because they could be at risk of leaving. One way to lessen the risk is having one-on-one conversations about their future career trajectory and how it aligns with the vision for the new organization.