Components of a successful strategic communications strategy in professional services M&A

Components of a successful strategic communications strategy in professional services M&A

Components of a successful strategic communications strategy in professional services M&A 1220 628 Sean Cullen

The communications plan is an essential tool for success in any merger or divestment, and benefits from being given due attention early in the process. While it might be tempting to see your communications strategy as just being on the announcement of a deal, a strategic communications plan will lay the foundation for the future success of a merged business or one reshaped by a divestment. As soon as a sale is being seriously considered, you should start to give thought to your communications strategy. If your communications plan takes shape and develops hand in hand with the deal itself, the stronger and more effective it will be.  

Let’s be honest, in general the legal sector in particular is not good at strategic comms around M&A. Merger talks often leak. Announcements then get rushed and have not been fully thought through. Deals can fail at the final hurdle of partner votes. Post-merger integration is incredibly tough, requiring change management and change communications. Partners can find themselves in a muddled process in their own business that they would never recommend to a client.

Articulating the ‘why’

At the heart of your communications plan needs to be your key messages about the deal: why you are doing it and what the benefits are (and for whom).

You need to be able to articulate the answers in simple, clear terms. What is the benefit of the deal for your people, clients and the business as a whole? Without a compelling rationale for the deal, it will be hard to generate the desired response from your stakeholders. In professional services, it is important not to overcomplicate the deal rationale and to have a detailed process around the communications.

Successful messages are simple and incisive – by focusing on the benefits the deal will bring and why this will better-position the firm to succeed, you cut to the heart of the question and frame the deal in a positive way from the outset. Similarly, in addition to the deal rationale, it is equally important to clearly articulate your vision and strategy for the future combined firm for both internal and external audiences, including clients, regulators, employees and media.

These key messages will underpin and shape all communications that follow and should be consistent and reassuring. Firm leaders may tire of repeating them, but for audiences, this repetition and message discipline is vital to ensure the points you want to get across are heard and land in the right way.

When to communicate and responding to leaks

Communicating about your plans and what is happening is an iterative process that will continue before, during and after the announcement of the deal and deal completion. However, before you are ready to discuss your plans publicly, you may face questions from leaks and rumours that your people or clients have heard in the market or from competitors.

How to respond to such a situation requires careful consideration and judgement – if you get this wrong, you risk losing trust among your people that will be hard to recover. Factors to consider include the nature of the question – who is asking it and what is their role in the organisation and your future plans? What information do they have, how accurate is this, and what is the source? How far through the deal negotiation process are you – are you close to being ready to announce something, or having tentative conversations with suitors?

Depending on these factors, if a valued employee has heard something either accurate or inaccurate and asked for confirmation, a wise course of action may be to bring the individual into confidence and give them the facts, rather than risk losing their trust in the organisation and as an employer. Equally, you may prefer to adopt a holding position, and reassure them that there is nothing material to be aware of at the moment, but that you will let them know as soon as there is. This approach will place pressure on your later actions and it will be important to communicate fully and transparently when you do choose to announce your plans. Crucially, any response must be based in truth or it will create significant challenges later in the process.

As your plans develop, it can be valuable to develop concurrent communications strategies – a ‘Plan A’ which is your ideal, preferred plan where you are in control of the timing of the announcement, and a ‘Plan B’, which is an accelerated plan where you may be forced through leaks to discuss your plans at an early stage and at pace, in response to a trigger event such as a media enquiry or significant internal leak. These documents should be seen as ‘living’ and kept as up to date as possible as your position evolves. All being well, you will be able to execute Plan A and Plan B can fall away as you draw nearer to agreeing a deal.

Announcing the Merger

When you are ready to announce a deal, you will need to work closely with the other party’s comms team or PR agency to agree a plan that works for both parties. The announcement should be clear and informative, and is your primary opportunity to set out your vision and strategy and sell the deal to a wide audience of stakeholders.

The sequencing of the release of information is a vital component to get right at this stage in order to maintain trust and buy-in for the deal and requires specific attention. It is easy to fall at this final hurdle and both sides will need to be nimble and perhaps flex their plans somewhat without compromising core messages. Balancing the needs of your people, your key clients and obligations to parties such as regulators requires careful planning, including factors such as time zones and the nature of your client relationships and manner of communication with them.

Internally, you should allow time and focus to making sure your senior leaders, management teams and business support functions such as HR are ready to support colleagues who may be affected by the change as soon as the announcement is made. They should be already briefed and sold on the deal rationale, and prepared with materials such as anticipated FAQs and signposts to further information and resources as may be needed.

Concluding thoughts

An effective M&A communications strategy is a management team’s best asset to promote business continuity and stability during what will inevitably be a disruptive and potentially destabilising process of transformation. By ensuring that the right messages are communicated to stakeholders at the right time, firm leaders can build support for the deal, minimise anxiety in employees and clients, boost morale and increase the potential of retaining vital talent.