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Let’s merge together

8 May 2012

Collaboration, merger, joint ventures – increasingly, the realistic method of surviving and thriving for many organisations involves getting together in one form or another. Forster is helping organisations to plan and manage the stakeholder engagement process right from the start – when it really matters.

By bringing together organisations with a similar mission, mergers can improve existing services, create new benefits, save money.

If done well, the opportunities can far outweigh any philosophical or moral objections. However, although the prime focus is on getting the structure, legal formalities in place, that’s just part of it. Too often, senior managers think that once the formal act is done, the two organisations will just somehow easily mix into a new whole.  What people forget is that a good marriage depends on effective engagement.

We’ve seen managers point to the corporate cliché that, in times of austerity, it’s best to leave the communications till the end and see what resources are left. As a result, the discussions around whether to merge – and how to go about it – are confined to the offices of senior management, without the involvement of communications professionals. Internal and external communications have a central role in making sure things run smoothly and that a merger results in a better situation for all concerned.

So, it’s important for merging organisations to put people first and take on board the two C words – culture and communication. Right from the beginning of the process, not as an afterthought, even in a recession.  It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of telling people what you think they need to hear, or what will serve the purpose of the organisation at that time. But without a long-term view you may well create problems for the new organisation further down the line, as messaging becomes confused or disjointed and staff and stakeholders lose faith.

From Forster’s experience of working with Carers TrustAge UKGingerbread and, currently, with the new organisation that has resulted from merger of Iain Rennie and Grove House hospices, here are some pointers…

  • Work together – whether the merger is a meeting of two equal partners, or one organisation is in the driving seat, it’s important that you both work closely together to plan and deliver communications. You need to be saying the same things, at the same time, every step of the way.
  • Plan ahead – communicating openly and promptly at the earliest opportunities during the process will allow you to minimise speculation and misunderstanding. Be clear on how information will be shared with the relevant audiences at key stages.
  • Be clear and consistent and establish clear messages – get the support of staff, volunteers and stakeholders by giving them a real understanding of the reasons behind the plans and what the merger will mean for them as individuals, as well as for the organisation as a whole. Develop crystal-clear messages tailored to each group of people. Stay on message. Consistency builds clarity and establishes trust, while any hint of confusion will quickly make people wonder if you’re telling them the whole story.
  • Engage in discussion – don’t just push the message out – take time to listen and respond. Arrange meetings and use your internal communications system to facilitate open conversations about the plans. Monitor the discussions and take the time to respond to any questions or to correct any misinformation.
  • Show leadership. Senior management should front communications. It’s important to demonstrate strong, confident leadership and clear vision. Train your senior staff to participate, if necessary.
  • Reinforce vision once merged – once the merger has happened, reinforce the future vision for the organisation and make sure that any changes to the brand and messaging are being adhered to across the new organisation. If you’ve started comms early to pave the way for internal acceptance, post-merger integration should be easier.

@jillyforster