M&A Communications: The Sound of Silence

By Amy McDonald, Associate at Global PMI Partners

Five Factors for Great Day 1 Communication

Poor Communication is an oft-cited scapegoat of unsuccessful integrations, often disproportionately so. Here’s why: Good communication is largely invisible. Bad communication, however, is noisy, chaotic and leaves a path of destruction that’s hard to miss. A well-executed communication plan leaves in its wake a (relatively) peaceful silence.

That peaceful silence is the sound of people working instead of wondering what’s going on.

Is that peaceful post-Day 1 silence a pipe dream? Not at all. The right planning and preparation go a long way toward quieting what could otherwise be a chaotic time for your company and its customers.

Here are five factors that will shape your success:

  • Use Surround Sound Messaging
  • Go Broad and Deep
  • Address Ambiguity
  • Nail Down Details
  • Do the Right Thing

Use Surround Sound Messaging

Communicating in Surround Sound is the best way to combat the noise of information overload and disparate voices. The Surround Sound concept involves engaging and equipping your key stakeholders and your organization’s various relationship owners with the messages you want to penetrate the market. Effective “surround sound” messaging aligns the message, the communicator, the channel and the timing for optimal effect. Here’s how to do it well:

  1. Key Messages
    Articulate messages and build early buy-in so the people who will need to use the messages believe them and are willing to deliver them convincingly. Your messaging should always include a connection to your company’s purpose (vision, mission, values, objectives, etc.).
  2. Playbooks
    Package the messaging in plug-and-play formats easily used by relationship owners. Anything copy- and paste-able saves time and minimizes errors. The Playbook approach also lets you build upon the lessons of past integrations so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time.
  3. Use Trusted Sources
    Day 1 isn’t the time to introduce unfamiliar communication channels if there’s an established alternative. A trusted source lends credibility – whether that’s a go-to industry publication or a favorite supervisor.
  4. Know Your Messengers
    Chances are you’ll be relying on a number of people in your organization to help deliver the message to stakeholders. Identify those relationship owners in detail. Who answers the customer call? Who do employees trust with their questions? Whose signature is on the supply contracts – this means not only job titles, but names, email addresses, and contact distribution lists that allow you to disseminate communication materials reliably.
  5. Timing Matters
    It’s easy to spend so much time focusing on what to say that you take for granted when to say it. Part of equipping your communicators well is tightly coordinating the timing in which they should communicate. Multiple time zones, varying shift schedules and other factors can make this a tedious process, but one that pays off by helping you nail down details and think critically about the sequence of events.

Go Broad and Go Deep (but not necessarily at the same time)

When it comes to big news, everyone wants to be first to know. Chances are, you have a lot of stakeholders who fit that profile, and it’s not always possible to meet with every one of them individually right off the bat. A good compromise here is to push broad communication across your stakeholder groups – a press release, an employee newsletter, a customer email, a supplier email, etc. – all at once, with a promise of more individualized follow-ups to occur in the days immediately following. This approach has the advantage of mitigating the risk of misinformation by providing a consistent message to everyone in a relatively short time period, while allowing for one-on-one communication over time. This approach also enables effective stakeholder communication across time zones, multiple sites and shift schedules.

Address Ambiguity

Ambiguity is a normal part of any merger or acquisition. You cannot eliminate it. The trade-off to communicating early is that you often don’t have all the information people want. On the other hand, deferring some decisions until the business is further integrated can result in better solutions for the company long-term. So how can you strike the best balance between ambiguity and information?

  1. Stop saying “Nothing is changing”
    It’s usually not true. If people work for a different company today than yesterday, something changed. Be realistic and specific about what is and what isn’t changing. Providing details can help people put boundaries around their uncertainty and builds trust in your management team.
  2. Prioritize important answers
    Pay and benefits are the top-of-mind examples. Unless you address these issues in a meaningful way on Day 1, employees will have a hard time focusing on the task at hand. The goal should be what one of my past clients relayed to me at the end of Day 1: “all the questions people asked were about how to take care of customers and how we were going to work together, because all the ‘me’ stuff was answered.”
  3. If you can’t say what, say when
    Many times, details about important integration topics simply aren’t known yet because the work hasn’t been done. Instead of laying out details prematurely, tell employees when they can expect answers. People can be patient for a finite amount of time, whereas open-ended ambiguity contributes to angst.
  4. Don’t forget what’s not changing
    The nature of uncertainty is that it extends to just about anything. “What’s Changing” documents are a great way to address a variety of potential questions with a relatively brief handout. The key is to address all the topics of interest to your stakeholder, not just the ones you’re planning to change. Doing so helps narrow the field of uncertainty for employees.
  5. Establish a feedback loop
    Feedback loops – from FAQ emails to suggestion boxes to Day 1 debrief meetings to open Q&A sessions to monitoring your Twitter feed and everything in between – help you monitor any burning issues so you can address them quickly before they become bigger than necessary. Start with any existing feedback loops and then only add new ones if you need to close gaps. Build the feedback into your playbooks and templates for future projects, as well.

Nail Down Details

Day 1 events are typically closely coordinated, with multiple people and groups communicating across various audiences all within a concentrated period. Inadequate attention to simple details ahead of time can create gaps and fire-fighting on Day 1, distracting from the quality of the message and detracting from the aura of calm, control and energy that you want to convey. Some easily overlooked items that can delay or derail effective communication on Day 1 include:

  1. Email Distribution Lists
    Make sure lists exist, are up-to-date and that key senders have permission to use them.
  2. Who Hits ‘Send’
    You might be surprised how often timelines reference the distribution of a customer message with minimal thought to the mechanics of sending it, for example centrally through a CRM tool like Salesforce.com or individually by sales reps.
  3. Go-Live Time Constraints
    Make sure your timeline accounts for how long it will take IT to push website updates or to make new sites visible to the public. More and more often, we rely on embedded links to intranets, Sharepoint sites, and web sites in our Day 1 communication and updates don’t always happen in real-time. Plan ahead.
  4. Meeting or Call Invites (and other logistics)
    Town Halls, Webcasts and All Hands meetings are a fantastic way to address a large base of employees on Day 1. But often, the timing of Day 1 and the news announced are confidential until the last moment, leaving a short window in which to inform employees about planned meetings. The same goes for conference room scheduling, webcast setup, and travel logistics. Make sure you discuss this in advance to accommodate the needs of the team.

Do the Right Thing

This almost goes without saying – almost. As a leader, there is no neutral action. Every step you take will either build trust and credibility among your stakeholders or erode it. No pressure, right? Day 1 is a very visible opportunity to make a good first impression on your new employees, your new customer base, and the rest of your stakeholders. In that moment and those to follow, there is absolutely no substitute for doing the right thing. No amount of communication can overcome dishonesty, unethical behavior, or a lack of respect for people.

Effective M&A communication isn’t rocket science. There’s no one right answer for a foolproof Day 1, but there are proven principles that significantly benefit your integration. Having a partner who has been through the process can prevent a lot of missteps and get you closer to the peaceful calm of a well-executed Day 1 strategy. We work as an extension of your team to craft Day 1 communication that supports your integration goals and the broader vision of your business.

Amy McDonald is an Associate with Global PMI Partners, based in the United States. With 20 years of experience supporting corporate clients through transformation, Amy has helped dozens of CEOs and business leaders articulate their unique voice and develop tailored communication plans that support their M&A objectives.

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