How to communicate a merger

One of the many joys of being an Internal Communicator is the variety of our work. At some point in your career, you may find yourself responsible for communicating a merger. This article will help you know what to do, how to plan, how to involve employees and how to scope out a timeline.

I think about mergers as mixing paints – you are blending companies together. For a while, there is a marbling effect as you start to blend the colours and cultures together. You can still see the original colours. Over time, a new hue will emerge, made up from the previous companies’ contributions and resulting in a new normal for the organisation.

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How to communicate a merger

One of 2018’s biggest business news stories was the proposed merger of SSE Energy Services with npower, to create a new, independent energy supplier with around 11 million customers for listing on the London Stock Exchange by Q1 2019 here in the UK.

This article has been written for you by Paula Richards, Head of Employee Communications at SSE Energy Services (pictured). She’s here to share what she learnt from the 13 months between announcement and the day the deal was called off in December 2018.

Paula edited consumer magazines before moving into corporate communications and has worked in a variety of external- and internal-facing roles in construction and utilities organisations, picking up a post-graduate diploma in Internal Communications along the way. In 2015, Paula set up the employee communications function for SSE Retail (now Energy Services).

Congratulations to the SSE Energy Services Corporate Affairs team for winning Communicate magazine’s gold award recently for the best alignment of internal and external messaging.

I’ll hand you over…

Communicating a merger – the SSE experience

The planned separation of the retail business from SSE Group and the proposed merger would bring huge changes for our 9000 employees.

While the new business would bring opportunities, we would lose our identity with the SSE Group and merge with a company with a different culture, and although nothing would be certain until after the merger had completed, the transaction was expected to bring synergies so there could be impacts on job security, benefits and terms and conditions.

Our aims and objectives
It was important that employees understood why we were planning to separate and merge, and, ideally, feel positive about it; we also wanted to ensure all front-line teams had the information they needed so they could have effective conversations with customers who might ask questions off the back of the steady flow of media coverage.

Understand stakeholders
Our approach was to be as open and transparent as possible, but before we could communicate anything we needed to understand our responsibilities, which included an understanding of competition law, who our key internal partners were (including those who managed external stakeholder relationships such as regulators, consumer groups, local MPs and trade unions) as well as what new levels of message sign-off was required – for example from the legal team.

Be aligned
To build trust and confidence in the proposals we wanted to make sure employees heard any news from SSE first, not the media. To do this we worked closely with external communications, using the published timetable of milestones as a basis for planning ahead.

(Jargon buster: CMA = Competition & Markets Authority).

The external team in particular also needed to align core messages and their timing with npower – within the legally approved communications protocol – which added another layer of complexity. The internal and external communications teams already worked together in Corporate Affairs, so we had a head start there.

For transparency we shared the same content internally as externally, even if it was a bit dry or technical, then followed up with ‘interpretation’ through leadership engagement a little later.

We also anticipated questions that external stakeholders including the media and/or employees might ask, and had developed and aligned answers signed off in advance so we could use them immediately, reactively and consistently as required.

Be quick
It was also important for us to be quick – because, once something had been communicated externally it was likely to be all over the media within half an hour and customers could be asking our front-line teams questions.

This meant we’d typically have a few minutes of frenzied activity populating Poppulo emails; typing tightly worded texts to field teams; loading up podcasts and posting content to the intranet and links from Yammer.

Using all channels
While we used plenty of face-to-face and ‘leader-led live’ communications including roadshows, floorwalking, events, conference calls and team briefs, Office 365 was incredibly helpful for improving our communication channels.

Many of our employees are hard to reach because they are talking to customers either on the phones or in their homes installing smart meters, for example, so using channels they could access when it suited them was helpful.

For announcement day we launched a microsite using Sharepoint communication site technology to host ‘one source of the truth’ about all things merger and which we constantly updated with news, factsheets and FAQs.

Keep listening
Meanwhile, Yammer revolutionised the way we communicate; it hadn’t previously been used at SSE formally, but we launched a group dedicated to the merger so that employees could ask questions – and expect to have them answered.

We added all in-scope employees to the group and, following an employee suggestion, amended our Yammer IDs so that it was clear we were part of the comms team and could be trusted to provide correct information. We also used Yammer for Q&A sessions with senior leaders – which was a very efficient means of direct engagement – as well as to gather quantitative insight about how well messages were landing.

By analysing employee comments we also gained qualitative insight into the sentiment around particular topics so we could tailor our communications appropriately.

Remember ‘what it means to me’
Finally, it was important to communicate a range of content: early on we found we were busy communicating the strategy while employees were asking questions about what it meant for their benefits, so we needed to address the mismatch quickly.

Ultimately, our messaging fell into five key buckets:

  1. The overarching SSE strategy and rationale for the merger
  2. The transaction process including CMA milestones
  3. Practical content around the separation of Energy Services such as changes to property
  4. ‘What it means to me’ – hygiene factors around employee benefits
  5. Where we could – building a vision of the future, for example, the recruitment of key leaders for the new business.

Post author: Paula Richards.

Thank you Paula. There’s such smart advice in here, thank you for sharing your story.

Further reading on the All Things IC blog: How to communicate mergers and acquisitions.

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First published on the All Things IC blog 4 June 2019.

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