When two companies merge, or one is acquired by another, the immediate reaction from many stakeholders is trepidation.
Employees may fear for their jobs or benefits. Stockholders worry about profits. Customers wonder about the quality of the product.
At Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy, we’ve worked hand-in-hand with business owners as they’ve gone through the process of merger and acquisition. Our job is to help them get the proper message out to all concerned parties.
And, in doing so, we are always guided by one word: Reassurance.
Clearly, transactions like this are not always good news for all sides. After all, the point of a merger is efficiency and that often translates to fewer employees. When two organizations become one, they don’t need two chief financial officers or, perhaps, as many workers at the plant.
But the goal, of course, is the greater good. We aim to reassure everyone involved that the changes will ultimately be beneficial for the future of the company, its investors, its workers and its customers.
Recently, we worked with a large educational services company that was acquired by a much smaller company. It was that rare case of a minnow swallowing a whale. Concern rippled through the staff of the company being taken over. We needed to let them know they were in no current danger of losing their jobs. Reassurance.
In another case, we represented a high-end restaurant group that was bought out by a larger restaurant company. It’s fair to say that the purchasing group’s chain of restaurants were more basic, in both price and menu. We moved to let all concerned parties – including patrons – know that the fancy eateries’ quality would not be compromised. Reassurance.
The first order of business in both cases was to help the companies’ leaders prepare their message breaking the news to high-ranking managers. Those managers, in turn, explained the changes to groups of employees.
In-person meetings are always best in these cases because impactful news deserves personal attention. Something might get lost in translation, even in well-written memos. Ceisler Media experts helped the managers prepare scripts they could read or use as cheat sheets. We also equipped them with likely questions and appropriate answers.
If an in-person meeting is not possible with every employee, we recommend video as an option. In these cases, the spoken word is almost always more effective than the written word.
Then there are the customers. In the case of our educational services company, we needed to reassure affected school districts that, even after taking on a large debt service, the newly created firm could still deliver the excellent service they were used to receiving. So Ceisler’s team helped company executives script phone calls to every school district.
For that restaurant acquisition, a main objective was to tell customers of the fancy establishments that food quality would be as good as ever. So we told frontline staffers to refer any customer questions to management. In these deals, worker bees are usually the least affected – you still need cooks and servers and busboys. The savings come in the back office – accountants, IT staff, HR people. Once those frontline employees understand their jobs are secure, they are happy to support the company and turnover inquiries to managers.
Keep in mind that any written materials for employees could make their way to news media.
Remember that if you are preparing an email blast or letter.
Ah yes, the media. Once employees have been informed, it’s time to broadcast the news - if
there is a reason to do so. Sometimes the mergers or acquisitions aren’t all that interesting to media or there is no benefit to coverage. That’s a determination a Ceisler Media communications expert can help make. We have had cases where one company bought another to bail it out. It was not in either’s interest to publicize the deal.
If, however, there is a benefit to publicly sharing the news – or if it somehow gets out inadvertently – you’ve got to prepare your messaging. Come up with as many questions and strategic answers as you can for media interviews. Conduct mock interviews with the CEO. Know that when you go to the media you are talking to all of your audiences, as well as employees who already know the news.
Even as you prepare the message, realize ahead that you may not be able to answer all questions. False information may get out there. Sometimes you have to stay silent because you cannot validate – or dispel – a rumor.
One final point: The mergers and acquisitions we typically hear about in media are the huge ones. The rules change in those mega-cases because they receive so much scrutiny. But for the average case, following a systematic plan of reassurance for all audiences will produce the best results.
Kirk Dorn is Senior Director at Ceisler Media's Philadelphia office and an expert in crisis management.