A masterclass guide: How to navigate mergers and acquisitions

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The abstract concept of teamwork, partnership, merger, alliance. Many multi-colored lines merge into a single arrow. Flat vector illustration isolated in white background.

One of the biggest challenges internal communications professionals may face in their career is navigating a merger or an acquisition. I have been in roles as a global head of communication and communications director where we have changed ownership of the organisation from private to public, and where we have managed an acquisition that saw a leadership team of the acquired company taking over – there are many stories to tell!

‘How to navigate mergers and acquisitions’ is a hot topic that comes up time and again when I’m speaking to communications leaders, and one where it’s so easy to get things wrong. In this blog I’ll take a look at the chaos that can come from poor communication during a merger or an acquisition, and share my five key pieces of advice on how to create calm when you’re surrounded by so much change, based on my own experience over the years. Let’s look at how to navigate mergers and acquisitions…

Is it a merger or an acquisition?

Before we dive in, I want to first take the time to stress the importance of differentiating between the two.

You’ll often hear “M&As” lumped together in business jargon but there’s a huge risk in combining the two terms when it comes to communication and culture.

A merger and an acquisition are very different things. We need to be clear which one we’re working with – are you merging with another organisation, being acquired or are you acquiring? They all need slightly different treatment because of the different balances in power that inevitably exist in each.  

Sometimes there’s a tendency not to lean into the reality of the distinction here – for example we can talk about “partnerships” and try to soften it for people, when actually one company is taking over another – and this can lead to more chaos further down the line.  

How to navigate mergers and acquisitions - two business people making a deal

What does chaos look like when you’re merging, acquiring or changing ownership?

 

In my experience of working with businesses on change communication, these are the biggest dangers when mergers and acquisitions are not communicated properly:

 – Confusion about direction: This is partly because things are quite often kept behind closed doors to begin with and it can feel very uncomfortable for people.  A lot of things need to be kept confidential for very valid reasons, but that can make it incredibly confusing for people while there’s lots going on behind the scenes that they don’t know about. It’s important to be aware of, and sympathetic to, these concerns.

 – Job security worries: Concerns about the future of jobs are inevitable due to the fact you’re bringing together two organisations where support functions or professional services can be streamlined. This can be a very tricky time for people as they live with the uncertainty of whether their role will continue to exist. It’s important to address these concerns at the earliest possible stage, but not to rush into reassurances that may later prove tricky to stick to. 

 – Culture chaos: This emerges when people are confused about who is in charge. The leadership changes that come with mergers and acquisitions can make it hard for employees to find an identity. They will have lots of questions like: Who do I listen to? Who’s in charge? Who’s my boss now? 

 – Mixed messages from leaders: This can often happen because things change at pace. A merger or an acquisition, or a change from a private to a public company, can be a surprise to employees when things have had to be kept quiet due to commercial sensitivities. When you’re in the leadership team you’ll probably have been ‘in it’ for a while. You might have been working on this for months and your natural instinct is likely to be one of relief that you are out of the other side of things. You may feel like celebrating but other people will need time to catch up and will, understandably, have questions and a need to be listened to.  

Things to avoid – mergers and acquisitions

There are a number of things that can exacerbate chaos during a merger or acquisition process. These are some of the most common that I have witnessed:

  • No data gathered about the people and no insights into the organisation shared with those communicating or managing the change: Information might be shared at a very senior level but doesn’t always make its way through the organisation to the people that are communicating.

  • A lack of basics in place: For example, job descriptions, IT connectivity etc. If the simple things that people need to do their job are not in place, or people don’t know where to find them, you’re likely to have chaos on your hands. It’s crucially important to get those basics right.

  • Rushed campaigns that don’t adequately reflect their audience: It’s not uncommon to see big campaigns, that were designed to bring people together, reflecting one culture more than the other. It’s a classic symptom of rushing to fix things. Usually where we go wrong is not allowing time to get things aligned, resulting in us asking people to get behind something that they haven’t been part of creating.

So, how do we create calm when there is so much change?

Firstly, we must have a plan with timescales. That plan should encompass the following five points:

  1. Have a purpose and a narrative: Find the story. There will be a reason for the merger/change/acquisition and this needs to be told, with honesty and integrity. Messaging needs to be joined up between the two organisations – sometimes this is where things slip as there is one message going out to existing employees and another to those newly acquired. All stakeholders should be considered here, not just employees, and the narrative should include detail about what the change is and why we need to change as an organisation. 
     
  2. Make some decisions about culture and integration depth: Not every organisation that acquires another organisation wants to integrate them into the existing brand. Are you becoming one new organisation? Is the acquired company being absorbed into an established brand? Is there no integration at all and it’s a purely financial/ownership relationship? There are lots of different ways companies change so we have to know this detail to help tell the story and importantly communicate how this directly impacts employees. 

  3. Get specific with stakeholders: Working through stakeholders and mapping out messaging for each of them is important. ‘Employees’ as one stakeholder will not work. You need to really segment employees by role, location and more to make sure your messaging is relevant to them.  

    People will want to know ‘what’s in it for me?’ and we need to be talking to them as individuals at a granular level. 

  4. Organisational design and business modelling have to be in the equation: A merger or acquisition will inevitably lead to a review of strategy and structures, and all of that takes time. What’s important here is that people are involved in this change and there is collaboration. People don’t like being controlled, so having time and space to work through the changes as an organisation is important. There has to be two-way dialogue here to understand what the business model and the organisational design looks like to succeed in the future.

  5. Have dedicated channels for the change: In my experience, having a dedicated channel to discuss the change is helpful – especially when there might be a group of employees who don’t have email addresses or might not be able to access information as quickly as those who are desk based. Decide what will work best for all employees  – it might be a microsite or a printed newsletter – and stick to it. Be consistent with that channel in terms of timing and content and use it to help take people through the changes.

A really useful story that I always refer to when talking to teams about merger and acquisition communications comes from Ross Edgley, who became the first person in history to swim around the coast of Great Britain. In his book The Art of Resilience he tells how when he had been swimming for 100 days skywriters took to the air to write 100 days and a love heart in the sky. He says he was enormously grateful but at that point all he really wanted was some bread! He refers to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how mismatched the two things were. The sky-writing was right at the top of the pyramid, he was right at the bottom.

It’s so important to be aware of these differences during changes in your business. Leaders at the top are likely to want to celebrate, whereas everyone else just wants to know if they can connect to the IT systems. Successful communications will take into account the views of all affected, ensuring they feel listened to and supported.

If you want to chat more about communicating through change or how to navigate your merger or acquisition. You can get in touch with us here.

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Join our community

Subscribe to join our community and we’ll be in touch with helpful advice and updates about how we can take your organisation from chaos to calm. Our community gets invited to a quarterly 90-minute Ask Me Anything online session with Jenni Field, as well as early access to events, discounts and research.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.