Merger communication: bang, smoking, still hot

One of the signs the economy is recovering is the increase in merger activity. What’s most important to the success of two organizations coming together is a communication plan that encourages good employees to stay and productivity to maintain.

From my experience advising and writing on several mergers, I know that these are scary, emotional times. Employees worry they may lose their job, hate their new boss, be forced to acquire new skills, give up their favorite perks or become lost in a stormy sea.

Because the emotional intensity changes as the merger progresses, I develop plans for three distinct phases:
1. the big bang, when you need to introduce people and provide some clarity and reassurance
2. smoking, when you let people know when to expect decisions and the context in which they will be made, for example whether job security will be determined by the value the individual adds or seniority
3. still hot-when you foster a sense of belonging, while recognizing the ongoing sensitivities

The big bang
When a merger is announced, uncertainty and a lack of trust will create a vacuum that will be filled by rumor and fear. Start filling the vacuum by introducing people and companies.

In the early days, executives are the critical spokespeople because they represent the new or changing organization. Managers are the link from leaders to employees.

During the first week or two, executives should visit as many locations and meet as many people as they can. Although distance may force them to meet some people virtually, they should look to video conferencing and other interactive, personal technologies and stay away from faceless memos and emails.

They should talk about why they bought the company, the values they share and reveal some of their strategy and philosophy. Employees will feel better if they are given a general idea of where the organization is headed.

To ensure leaders are consistent and clear, they should deliver the same key messages and use the same supporting slides and material. They need to take pains to avoid acronyms, corporate jargon or terms new employees might not understand. The language should be concise, simple and calm.

Managers should reinforce these messages with their teams. They should also find out about questions or concerns.

Smoking
As the integration continues, managers will play a larger role, explaining issues and decisions to their employees. Standard communication vehicles from newsletters to intranets will also ramp up.

Also growing in importance will be feedback from managers, surveys, focus groups, Facebook and other social media, dedicated voice mail boxes and a variety of other sources.

Because uncertainty abounds, employees need some reassurance, such as knowing the timing of decisions on issues that affect them. Employees should be informed of these kinds of changes by their manager, individually or in small groups depending on the sensitivity, before the announcement is made to the rest of the company and well ahead of media announcements.

Still hot
Once the new reality starts to take shape, employees need to understand and engage.

Although much of the fear of the unknown will have passed, they will still be adjusting to new brands, technologies, people and ways of doing things.

That’s why it’s important to foster a sense of belonging to the new or larger organization through coffee mugs, jackets and other trinket bearing corporate logos. It’s also time for sports leagues, charity fundraising, parties and other celebrations.

To adapt to new systems and processes, they’ll need communication that explains how the change will affect them personally. Posted interviews with employees who are already using the technology or new ways are a good way to provide information and credibility.

At this stage, many employees will not only be more comfortable with the new status quo but will also see how some of their colleagues have created opportunities from the changes. Profile these employees on the intranet, newsletters and other forums and encourage managers to talk about them in meetings.

How well employees will cope with the changes will vary with the individual and culture of the organization. But companies that are merging should assume that most employees will feel fear and other emotions and plan communication strategies that aim directly at their hearts.

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