HR & Management

Avoiding the communications vacuum during M&A

8 min read

17 October 2018

Communication is easily one of the most challenging elements of mergers and acquisitions. Here's how to ensure no one is left out of the loop.

There are lots of balls to keep juggling during any M&A. Some will need more attention at some stages than at others, and some will have a limited time in the air. One will need constant attention if your deal is to succeed in the long run – the one marked ‘communications’.

Communicating effectively with employees, investors, analysts, customers and other stakeholders during the M&A and integration process builds trust and credibility in the whole idea of the deal and creates lasting engagement and value in the new business – vital ingredients if it is to be better than what went before.

There are several myths in M&A that have a negative influence on an organisation’s ability to communicate effectively. They can create a culture of silence which can be very damaging. Let’s debunk some of them.

Myth: All communications should wait till the deal is done

Obviously, there can’t be any external communication until the ‘big reveal’, the announcement that the merger is going to take place. But the announcement doesn’t come from nowhere. The best announcements are heavily shaped by a detailed assessment of the benefits merger can bring, and how the combined business will operate post-close.

Ensuring this assessment and design is fit for purpose, realistic and credible requires communications.

At this stage, communication will be between the seniors in each organisation and their advisers, consultants and other external support. The fact that the universe of people involved is small does not mean there should be no communications strategy. Quite the opposite, in fact. A strategy is vital, and the time to develop it is well before the deal closes.

Working out who needs to know what and when they need to know it, ensuring information is shared accurately at the right times, quashing rumours and misinformation, applying rigour to the way information is presented across different teams, and even dealing with leaks if they happen are all communications tasks that require attention.

This pre-deal period is also the time at which post-announcement messaging is decided. That ‘big reveal’ will include its own messages, and will also be the beginning of a communications arc which will involve customers, clients, shareholders, the media, the general public and others.

Planning this arc and agreeing key what to say – and how to get accurate feedback on your messages, will need to happen pre-deal. Establishing and explaining any new or changed brand quickly and without confusion will require a good deal of work pre-deal, with further phases post-deal.

Myth: Staying quiet will protect external relationships

Keeping customers, suppliers and other business partners in the dark post-close means they might hear about plans first through the rumour mill, or worse still make assumptions that may be incorrect. This is hardly the best footing on which to start a new chapter of business.

Understanding existing legal and contractual relationships with key customers and suppliers will allow a planned approach to who should be told what (and when), how to address key concerns they may have, and how to use the deal to build a stronger relationship just at the moment when they may be considering opportunities to go elsewhere.

Careful communications planning will help bring your most valued stakeholders along for the ride.

A mishandled strategy or simple lack of contact could have them fearing the worst and running for your competitors.

Myth: Systems are a priority, communication with people can wait

Post-deal, acquirers often focus on the ‘hard’ side of integration, such as aligning financial, technical, reporting and compliance processes and information systems, leaving the more people-focused side of things till later.

But this approach – and the relative loss of focus on your people can result in confusion, uncertainty, loss of productivity and staff flight, especially among the managers who are needed to make all your systems and process puzzle pieces fit together.

The right approach is precisely the other way around – focus on people, organisation, roles and relationships first. Without feeling secure in their roles, key people may be unwilling to give the energy required, or even be tempted to leave completely.

Keep them in the loop and feeling valued and in control of their future, and people are more likely to contribute to getting high-quality processes and complex IT systems in place.

This requires more than just lip-service, it requires communications activities which are truly involving, and which treat people as valued assets whose contributions are heard and genuinely considered – right from the very start.

Myth: One size fits all

High-quality communications takes many forms and will morph and shapeshift as the deal progresses. Different communications approaches are required for different stakeholders, at different points in the process. In M&A it is necessary to deal with two different organisational cultures and often also with multiple geographies.

Employee expectations on day one within an engineering department in Germany will not be the same as those of a sales team in Brazil six months post-close, and attempting to force-fit a communications plan that treats them all the same is likely to misfire.

While key messages may be consistent, communications style and methods need to be tailored to meet the needs and expectations of each individual group. Getting feedback from groups on the effectiveness of the communications process itself – over and above the content – can help ensure you hit the mark every step of the way.

Regular, consistent communication is vital to the long-term success of any deal. It is central to building trust and credibility with everyone within and outside your new business.

If any silences occur at all, they should be planned rather than simply occurring through inactivity, leaving a vacuum to be filled by rumours and speculation. Savvy organisations put communication front and centre of the M&A process rather than allowing it to become side-lined or hidden behind myth.

Carlos Keener, founding partner of BTD Consulting.