You Said WHAT??

So last time we were looking at a target company that was in the middle of announcing to its staff that it had agreed to be sold (All Quiet on the Working Front). The Merger Verger was lucky enough to have “fly on the wall” privileges for two conference calls that were part of the internal announcement process. We continue our previous commentary with one more Simple observation.

The second call was focused on the target’s sales team, giving insight into the acquirer and food for dealing with potential customer concerns about the transfer of ownership. Again, all mostly Acquisition Integration 101 stuff. But as the call neared its end, one of the participants asked, “what are we not supposed to tell our customers?”Robert Osborn cartoon

OMG … what a fantastic question!! And all too often overlooked (as it was in this case).

It’s not The Merger Verger’s intention to list the million and one possible issues for non-disclosure (or even just one, for that matter), but we do point out that guiding staff – particularly those who are to be ambassadors of change to such outside stakeholders as customers or suppliers – about what they should not discuss is just as important as guiding them on what they should say. A simple “that information is not being disclosed [for competitive reasons, or whatever]” is usually enough to do the trick without sounding evasive or unhelpful. If, for some reason, that is not enough for the stakeholder, make sure your team knows what it is permitted to say and – also Keep Mumimportant – where the concerned party can go either for more help or for a more senior (and therefore presumably more satisfactory) explanation of the non-disclosure.

So when you are developing your core FAQs to prepare insiders for their conversations with outsiders, make sure you pause to include potential questions that they should not be answering and what they should be saying or doing instead.

Simple enough. But don’t be so focused on perfecting your outgoing messages that you overlook it.

Happy Harry

About the Art: It’s all 1940s.  Top: a US Navy propaganda cartoon by artist/satirist Robert Osborn encouraging civilians to keep their mouths shut.  Middle: a British equivalent by artist Gerald Lacoste (1942). Bottom: the very definition of “better to say nothing.” Harry S. Truman holds up the morning edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune announcing – erroneously – that he had been beaten by Thomas Dewey in the race for president. November 3, 1948.

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Saying “Nothing” versus Saying Nothing

Question: What should you say when there is nothing new or substantive to report?

Answer: Something.

Professional integration managers know that frequent, open communication is one of the cornerstones of a successful acquisition.  But they sometimes get paralyzed in those inevitable periods when the process is moving along according to plan but without crossing any new milestones.

The Merger Verger was talking recently with the CFO of a regional chain of apparel stores that found himself in just such a position.  He wanted his team to be communicating with key stakeholders (especially employees in this instance) but he didn’t see anything really pressing to tell them.  Things were proceding more or less as hoped, with nothing particularly positive or negative to report.

I asked my contact whether he was pleased with the way the integration was going. “Yes,” said he.  I then asked him whether the fact that the integration was proceeding as hoped might be of interest – reassuring, motivating, etc. – to his employees. “Yes,” again.

So that is the news.

It is essential for executives to remember that the turbulence of an acquisition reverberates through lower levels of the employee infrastructure over and over and over.  People do not stop talking with each other.  And if they have no new information about which to talk they will frequently assume the worst.  Saying nothing just because there is no landmark event to report on opens the door to uncertainty and misinformation.

One of the most positively-charged pieces of “non-news” that you can communicate to stakeholders is that the integration process is on track and that you are making steady (if uneventful) progress towards the objectives of your acquisition.

All major projects cycle through periods of high-profile events and followed by others of steady but unremarkable progress.  People get that.  But don’t underestimate the   reassuring value of a simple “we’re moving along just fine” update every now and then.  It can be powerfully good news.

Question: What other forms of “non-news” have you found useful to communicate to stakeholders?  How does this type of information differ from group to group?