Communicating a merger or acquisition: often, it’s a question of culture

Communicating a merger or acquisition: often, it’s a question of culture

Ana Mangahas

Ana Mangahas

One day last week, I woke up to the idea that thousands of young, would-be tech entrepreneurs must all be thinking the same thing: “When I grow up, I want an exit strategy just like Instagram’s”. And who could blame them? The ‘Instagram 13’ as I like to call them, have achieved overnight fame and secured eye-watering fortunes on the back of a nifty photo app. It remains to be seen what will actually happen to the business in the weeks and months post-Facebook acquisition, but the unfolding narrative will no doubt keep us sufficiently engaged. Headlines will likely evolve past, “Was it worth the $1 billion?” and “Warning: Return of the Tech Bubble” and begin to reflect strategically drip-fed news about the first fruits of the deal (Instagram 3D, anyone?), long-range vision pieces co-penned by management from both brands, and behind-the-scenes looks at how the Instagram 13 are getting on in their new digs (Cubicle or private office? Do Instagram pets get on with Facebook pets? What inter-brand dating is going on?).

If this all sounds a little cynical, well…it’s not, entirely. There will, in due course, be a concerted effort to control (or at least own) the newly-merged companies’ “everything’s fine” narrative in the media. If you think Instagram is too small for any internal upset to become a reputational risk, then maybe think about Skype and eBay for a moment…

There’s too much at stake, including a very, very big flotation.

As a PR person, I’ve served on both ends of the M&A lifecycle, representing one client post-merger and another in preparation for the acquisition of a rival firm. These experiences were very different from each other, but a common theme in both was company culture. According to a Mercer Transatlantic Study, “75 percent of executives surveyed said that communicating with employees and harmonising corporate culture were the most important factors for postmerger integration.” The piece goes on to state that successful cultural integration is necessary for the two organisations to create (customer, shareholder) value.

However, according to Nicole Utzinger, a change communications expert and director of EMEA Communications Consulting, “any M&A process is complex and depends on an effective strategy and detailed planning. Unfortunately, organisations and communications teams often get carried away with theoretical expertise, programmes and tools and as a result, the focus on people happens almost as an afterthought.”

The people/culture piece is vital to communicators organising an M&A announcement – specifically, having an acute awareness of the cultural differences and how these impact buy-in before and after a merger. It relates to external communications, if for example, the media are to believe that it’s a good match with obvious synergies; and as stated earlier, it relates very immediately to employees, who should (ideally) project an understanding of the deal in big picture terms. As a professional communicator in the midst of all this complexity, including the need to work in an information gatekeeper capacity, it’s a tricky balance between heading off fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) and communicating responsibly. Throw social media channels into the mix and the picture becomes even more complex. But experts are quick to suggest using social media to maximise opportunities for positive engagement during an M&A.

“Social media is no longer just an option or add-on, but a real ‘must’ when it comes to corporate and internal communications. Yammer, Facebook, Twitter and blogs – to name just a few – provide a crucial channel for collaborative dialogue between staff and management. Real-time and authentic communications flowing top down, bottom up and peer-to-peer allows everybody to join discussions and share information,” continued Utzinger.

How Facebook’s communicators will choose to leverage the excitement (controversy?) surrounding their new, bright and shiny object remains to be seen. I personally hope the 'cultural cross-pollination' story – and I’m 99% certain there is one – is told, for even in the relatively short distance between Menlo Park and South Park, the air is most certainly different, as are the native styles to doing business.

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