Peter Gilheany: How to manage the message when two organisations decide to merge

The director of the social change PR agency Forster sets out his key steps to managing merger communications

Peter Gilheany
Peter Gilheany

Bringing two organisations together in a successful merger is a challenge that can throw up many issues. But there are ways to smooth the process. These are my six essential steps to managing merger communications.

1. You need to create a clear, simple vision and rationale for the merger. Strong leadership is needed to articulate the challenge and opportunities facing your organisation at that moment, closely followed by an explanation of the reasons why the merger or takeover would be the best move. People appreciate the acknowledgement of the negative impact and are much more likely to consider it with an open mind and be more accepting and engaged in the vision for the change.

2. As the first point suggests, be open and honest with your people. Organisations are often scared to be open about the fact that there are winners and losers in almost all of these situations. Those going through a merger would be better off treating their audiences like adults and addressing the cons, as well as the pros, of the planned changes to their communications. That means being transparent about what services will be lost or reduced and who could be made redundant as a result.

3. Consider the different audiences that you need to engage with once you have started the merger process. These tend to fall into three categories: internal (such as staff, trustees and volunteers); involved (such as regular supporters, service users, funders and partners); and external audiences (such as peers, potential supporters, relevant statutory bodies, commentators, stakeholders, influencers and the general public). Understand the differences between these groups and tailor communications to each.

4. You must consult properly, which means listening and responding to stakeholders' concerns. The term 'consultation' is much abused and is now often assumed to be euphemistic, sparking cynicism in most people that it is a box-ticking exercise that's done because it has to be. False engagement of this kind will only deliver bitter and disenfranchised staff, donors, volunteers and beneficiaries. Instead, do these people the service of talking and listening to them and act on some of the things they say.

5. Start with internal audiences, because if you do not take them with you the merger will be a difficult time. Demonstrate how you have examined alternatives and give a genuine opportunity for people to posit other views and solutions. Trustees have a powerful role to play in this process, distanced as they are from the everyday operations and generally immune from the self-interest that can plague senior leadership teams in such circumstances.

6. Consider the new brand name, look and feel only after your house is in order. For external audiences, be clear on the reasoning, lead from the front in terms of communicating the vision and instigate a proactive media campaign that can bring that vision to life as soon as is feasible. But remember that considerations such as possible name changes are the icing on the cake. They are your final issue - not the first one.

Peter Gilheany is director of the social change PR agency Forster.

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