Magazine article Marketing

Going Live Can Put Staff Fears to Rest

Magazine article Marketing

Going Live Can Put Staff Fears to Rest

Article excerpt

Live events can be a useful tool in conveying company policy to staff after a merger, says Rachel Miller

Internal communications can be a challenge at the best of times, but when there is a merger or acquisition in the offing, time pressures, the need for confidentiality and staff anxiety can raise the temperature considerably.

Although Stock Exchange rules prevent companies from telling staff the ir plan s be fore the City is informed, forward planning and face-to-face communication through live events can ease staff fears and help them embrace change.

The power of live events was demonstrated in May when Lloyds TSB brought together 5000 members of staff at the NEC to launch its new brand and merge the two cultures. Using a pioneering pathfinder strategy, those who attended were charged with carrying back the key messages and communicating them to the remaining 72,000 staff (see box).

When Asda was preparing to sell out to US grocery giant Wal-Mart, serious preparation went into ensuring that Asda staff would welcome their new parent with open arms. The day the offer was declared unconditional - July 27, 1999 - was named Wal-Mart Day and staff enjoyed a celebration meal with a US-theme.

This party atmosphere was the result of groundwork laid immediately after the merger was first announced and was due in part to Asda's commitment to internal communication. "We believe communication is key to everything we do and we very much focus on face-to-face," says Helen Wilcox, Asda's general manager, communications.

Asda staff, known as 'colleagues', are given regular opportunities to hear company news and voice their opinions. All 80,000 colleagues split into small 'huddle' meetings three times a day, and once a month managers bring together groups of about 20 staff to watch the centrallyproduced news video plus a 20minute slide show. The managers also make themselves available to answer questions at this time.

For the Wal-Mart merger, this existing structure was supplemented by a special campaign plan. "We made sure that when the takeover was announced in the City, everyone was immediately told across Asda. It is important to communicate before the rumours spread," says Wilcox. "We produced a note on the main details and said that there was no need to worry. We then informed colleagues about Wal-Mart and filmed their staff, making our own videos about them in our style."

Asda also established a dedicated e-mail address and set up a helpline which attracted hundreds of calls over the first few days. "The main emphasis was on face-to-face communication and the result was that by Wal-Mart Day, six weeks after the first announcement, everyone felt involved and was eager for the merger to take place."

The success of Asda's strategy suggests that it is best to keep staff informed of company decisions which will affect them.

But many firms seem to prefer to keep their plans among only the most senior staff. According to Lilian Ing, consulting director at internal communications specialists Smythe Dorward Lambert, communication planning has been insufficient in 75% of mergers. In 47% of cases, cultural issues have been given too little consideration.

Ing warns that companies risk their reputations if they do not communicate properly with staff. "Your staff are your ambassadors," she says." If low morale develops, you will lose your staff and your reputation will suffer."

Smythe Dorward Lambert has brought its experience to a number of mergers, including that of Glaxo Wellcome, and follows a tried-and-tested three-phase plan. "At the planning stage, the announcement should be prepared and a contingency plan drawn up in case of any leaks," advises Ing. "At this stage, you should carry out a cultural mapping of the two companies to establish similarities and identify the potential stumbling blocks."

Phase two is the announcement, by which time managers should be able to deliver the key messages in person. …

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