Mergers and acquisitions undoubtedly cause uncertainty and can potentially come with difficult news for employees. Whether you’re an internal communicator, or a member of another function looking to partner with Internal Communications, we provide guidelines to help you strategically plan and communicate the change.
In a post-merger or -acquisition environment, it’s fair to say some people, at every level of the organization, will be reeling from the impact on the businesses involved.
However smooth and well-orchestrated the process, there will be upheaval – and at the very least, significant change – for certain employee communities along the way. For Internal Communications, this presents both a challenge and – at the risk of sounding a little mercenary – an opportunity to establish credibility and authority as change agents; the team that can help even things out and bring everyone together as a single, integrated company.
What’s more, not only will the change need to be effectively communicated to employees, it’s also critical to the organization’s future that you clearly define and articulate your ongoing strategy. To achieve this, we recommend as internal communicators, you partner with other functions. Start planning and acting to engage employees and positively impact performance.
Guidelines for Internal Communications
Over the years, the research we’ve conducted into change communication and M&A impact has helped us create a checklist of points to consider in the ‘Brave New World’ created post-M&A – how to position Internal Communications, how to define our role and how to evaluate the right partnerships to build to take things forward. We’ve listed these guidelines below.
- Decide what definition of ‘partnership’ is right for your organization and your team.
For some, a partnership means a collaborative relationship of equals. For others, it can still be a customer/supplier relationship. The most appropriate form of partnership may well vary, depending on the project and the partner. But, where possible, you’ll probably still want to have an idea of how you will approach the situation and who you’d ideally like to be working with.
- Establish how you ideally want to add value within those partnerships.
We can choose where we want to focus our energy as communication professionals, the level at which we want to operate and the type of value we want to add. Do you want to be the person who challenges the underlying strategy and acts as counselor and coach? Can you add your best value by translating complex strategies into simple messages, expressed in ways employees trust and can identify with? Do you want to do all those things, or something totally different?
- Keep an open mind.
About where you can add value, that is. There are some fairly forthright views expressed in the corporate world about where communicators should be along the continuum from craftsperson to strategist and coach. But it’s also clear that partners value the skills we can contribute across the full range of that continuum.Coaching, facilitating, questioning, challenging, being the business counselor – all those things are highly valued. They unquestionably add value to the business, and there’s definite room for us to be developing people’s skills in these areas and spending a higher proportion of our time on them. If partners haven’t yet seen internal communicators acting in these roles, they won’t appreciate the difference IC can make.At the same time, our partners in a post-M&A environment also value audience understanding; the ability to develop simple, easily understood messages which resonate with employees and outline the new vision; production skills; creativity; and the ability to choose the right channels. There’s a tendency sometimes to leave communicators feeling guilty for spending time and energy on tactical activities that our partners actually value highly.
- Know the business and its employees in the new structure.
An intimate understanding of the business (and what went before to provide context), together with an ability to speak confidently on behalf of employees and predict how they might react, are the requirements common to all Internal Communication activities post-M&A.The idea of being a business person first and a communicator second isn’t new, but it’s still an area where many communicators fall short. Business focus is a fundamental competency, but one which far too many professional communicators lack. One of our major tasks post-M&A will be supporting the organization in making the new strategy clear and meaningful for all – in order to do that, we need to fully understand it too.
- Consider whether the team has the right skills.
Provide developmental and practical support where it’s needed. Being trusted advisors, coaches, partners, counselors – these are all roles which communicators often assign as ‘best in kind’. At the same time, many don’t know what those roles mean in practice, lack the skills or experience to carry them out and, when it comes down to it, will choose the easier option to take a brief and produce materials every time.
- Invest time and effort in articulating the value that Internal Communication can add…
Ours isn’t the easiest role in the world to articulate and we probably all have friends and family with slightly odd ideas about what we do at work.Given this, it isn’t really surprising when partners don’t know how to make best use of us or when turf wars arise as we step on each others’ toes. Which is why it pays dividends to spend time explaining what our role is really about, identifying where there are gray areas and agreeing who’ll do what.
- … But stay flexible.
Collaboration and cross-fertilization of skills and experience are two of the benefits of partnerships. They can only happen if we’re willing to step out of the mindset of “This is my job. Keep out.”
- Look out for those people with the new job titles.
Is your organization employing Employee Engagement Managers or Internal Brand Managers? What does that mean for Internal Communication? What do you want it to mean? Is the concept of employee engagement proving to be an opportunity for your function or a threat? And how can you shape the debate and the outcome?
Recommendations for other functions
Of course, M&As are not all about Internal Communications. If you’re reading this feature as someone who intends to work in partnership with the Internal Communications function in the post-M&A environment, the practical recommendations below, based on interviews with partners of communicators who have shared their experiences, could help you get the most out of the partnership.
- Take Internal Communications seriously.
Internal Communications can sometimes be seen as the ‘soft’ function, compared to its more established relatives of PR or Marketing, or to operational areas. If you do choose to view it this way and treat your Internal Communication partner accordingly, you’ll limit the role they can play and the value they can add to your post-M&A projects.Put aside any preconceived ideas and ask your Internal Communication partner to explain how you can make the most effective use of their time and expertise. Be open to them playing a completely different role from the one you might have been used to.
- Take your employees seriously.
Organizations are fond of saying employees are “their best asset,” but their needs sometimes seem to be an afterthought during mergers, after we’ve thought about shareholders, customers, politicians and all the other external stakeholders.
- Involve your Internal Communications partner early in M&A-related projects.
One of the biggest complaints from internal communicators is that they’re asked to help too late, when all the important decisions have already been made. Again, this’ll limit their role to “sending it out,” and they’ll have insufficient time to plan how to do even that properly.
- Think about the type of Internal Communications professional you want.
Do you need someone who can challenge your thinking, act as a coach and facilitator and provide input to business decisions? Or do you simply want someone with good craft skills, who can help you produce materials? What’s your post-M&A project about? Are you trying to fundamentally change behaviors, or are you making sensitive decisions that’ll affect employees’ futures? Look for a partner with the appropriate skills and experience.
- Give your partner the licence to challenge and ask difficult questions.
A good Internal Communications partner can hold up the mirror and point out when the emperor is wearing no clothes. Make it clear that you’d value this type of input and be open to their questions and feedback. If you think your new structure or strategy is flawless and everything’s been planned to perfection, it can be hard to hear employees are less than enthusiastic and some aspects of those carefully prepared plans are going badly wrong. But by listening and acting, you’ll get a better end result.
- Do clarify roles and responsibilities but don’t be territorial.
This one applies equally to you and your Internal Communication partner. A consistent theme in our case studies on change is that it helps to discuss and agree roles and responsibilities upfront. But at the same time, both parties need to be open-minded, respectful of each other’s opinions and willing to both contribute towards, and listen to, views outside what they consider to be their specialist area. Some of the best results in our case studies came from skills, ideas and expertise being transferred from one area to another.
How to partner with other functions during M&As
Some departments have more integral roles in the change process than others, and this list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some points about HR, Corporate Affairs and Legal that IC needs to consider if partnering with them.
HR acts as a business partner to the Internal Communication team and can assist in defining messages to be distributed. In many countries, you’re not legally allowed to communicate changes to employees until local regulatory requirements and processes have been completed.
You always need to ensure that your internal and external communication is lined up in terms of messaging and timing.
The Legal department typically becomes involved when organizational changes affect employees’ jobs, and it can ensure the process is handled in accordance with local regulations – important with global or pan-European programs, where you are managing significant changes across multiple countries.