With M&As Coming, Tips for Communicators in Times of Change

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It’s one of the dirty, little secrets of communications—for a variety of reasons internal communications is among the most challenging things brand communicators do. Adding a degree of difficulty to internal communications is practicing it during times of change, such as before, during and just after a merger and acquisition (M&A).

With the June 12 court ruling allowing AT&T’s gargantuan acquisition of Time Warner to proceed, the floodgates might open to a rash of M&As. Media companies seem particularly poised to pounce and be pounced upon. Communicators at these companies, and those that seem to be M&A targets, can expect to be busy.

Even without a barrage of M&As, communicators at AT&T and Time Warner will earn their money during the coming weeks and months hence, says Larry Parnell, a former corporate communicator who heads the George Washington University graduate program in strategic PR. This is because M&As are more than a combination of companies’ operations and finances—they’re a meshing of cultures.  And there’s the rub, says Parnell, who’s studied M&As for years. “Many times cultures don’t mesh,” which is one reason why roughly two-thirds of M&As fail to add the shareholder value lawyers and other executives promise when proposing them. Wall Street often considers M&As with healthy skepticism for good reason.

Larry Parnell, Director, Program in Strategic PR, George Washington University
Larry Parnell, director, Program in Strategic PR, George Washington University

What too many companies forget, Parnell says, is that a successful M&A is “about people, not Xs and Os.” Companies often give short shrift to the importance of aligning cultures in a merged company. Communicating to employees about their future suffers as a result.

In fact, Parnell believes, the “really hard work happens after” M&A lawyers and other executives have left the scene. The heavy lifting, aka explaining what the M&A means for employees, usually falls to communicators. We used the word "falls" in the previous sentence purposely. Parnell describes a scene where executives leave the boardroom after an M&A agreement is signed, turn to communicators and say, "'Now you guys figure it out.'"

Eyeing the merger of Time Warner and AT&T, for example, Parnell notes AT&T, which began as a utility and now is a multinational conglomerate holding company, will need to manage people it might not be experienced with, such as actors, directors and other creatives at Time Warner’s HBO. The size and scope of HBO dwarf AT&T's Audience unit, which produces content for its television network of the same name, such as Mr. Mercedes and Loudermilk. AT&T also will be managing and communicating with journalists at CNN, another Time Warner property, he notes.

There also are global employees. As a result, internal communications at the newly merged company “can’t be a cookie-cutter operation,” Parnell says. “I hope they realize how much work there is to do.” If not, this merger may end up “becoming just another [failing] statistic.”

How the Hard Work Gets Done

We asked Jason Meyer, a director at APCO Worldwide, for internal communications best practices during times of change, such as an M&A. In short, “proactive, well-planned communication cannot be emphasized enough,” he says. “It is paramount [employees] understand that a roadmap—underpinned by stability for the organization—exists.”

In addition he offers these tips for communicators and executives in the C-suite:

  • Tailor communications to ground the rationale for change in the core values of the blended organization. When merging cultures, it is inevitable various attributes of workplace culture appealed to the existing workforce. These attributes attracted workers and has kept them loyal. Do the due diligence to understand the values and attributes that drove affinity for the workplace culture and be intentional about outlining how the future combined organization will reflect these values. Change will be easier to understand when placed in the context of a solid, welcoming culture.
    Jason Meyer, Director, APCO Worldwide
    Jason Meyer, director, APCO Worldwide
  • Ensure leaders and managers at all levels of the organization are briefed on key details and understand when and how to most effectively engage those who report to them with key information. Change communications should never feel like a top-down exercise. Clear leadership visibility bolstered by enthusiastic “surround sound” is the way to go.
  • Establish a feedback loop with employees that is in tune with your organization’s culture. Whether through online surveys, town halls or other means, ensure your people know they are heard and you plan to be responsive to their thoughts during the transition.

As with any communications initiative, it is important to measure periodically to see what is working or failing. Communicators should tweak as needed, Parnell says.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow him: @skarenstein