Good communications during mergers is vital. We asked charity comms professionals for their tips on getting it right.
Earlier this year the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities called for government and the Charity Commission to make it easier for charities to merge in order to avoid duplication and improve efficiency. While mergers can have considerable benefits, change is also undeniably scary for most of us.
If you’re responsible for communicating this change, or if you’re advising your senior management team, you’ve probably got quite a task on your hands. We’ve supported several charities with their merger comms, from small teams to larger organisations. Based on our experience, we’ve put together a list of some of the things you should, and definitely should not say, during the process.
Keen to pull in as many experiences as possible, we also spoke to comms teams at charities from Homeless Link, Sparks and Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, The Mix and Together for Short Lives who’ve recently been part of merger or partnership processes themselves.
What to say:
Your vision for the future. The decision to merge will have been made because it is the best way for the work of both organisations to continue, improve or grow. There will be a shared purpose that is firmly focused on those whom the charities exist to support. The new organisational vision – and the rationale behind joining up – should be at the core of all communications.
Top tip: Communications should be fronted by members of your senior management team; the task of communicating a strong vision for the future is not something that can be delegated.
Sparks joined the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) family in February 2017 to deliver more funding into paediatric research. Elvira Morrison, head of Sparks, says:
We focused on the exciting opportunities we could maximise by joining together, which meant when we announced the new partnership externally, Sparks staff already had a really good understanding of GOSH charity, and were looking forward to what lay ahead.”
How staff and service users will be affected and when. Besides the charities’ mission and vision, the main thing people will want to know is how the changes might affect them personally and when. Allay people’s fears as much as you can, but focus on providing accurate and consistent information at all times. It’s fine if this is top-line at first; it may not be realistic or helpful to tell everyone everything in the early stages of the process. Your messaging can and should evolve over time.
Top tip: If the management team seems to be inaccessible, or appears to be aloof and ‘untouched’ by the process, particularly where restructures and redundancies may affect others in the organisation, speculation and ill-feeling will spread like wildfire and undermine your best communications efforts. In order to feel confident in giving senior managers this crucial role, you may want to consider arranging training for them in face-to-face communication, as well as media training.
Consistent messages. The importance of consistency cannot be overemphasised. You may want to adapt information for different groups of people but, to avoid any uncertainty, the core and tone of what you say needs to remain the same. This can certainly be tricky when there are two different organisations working together, so it’s really important both teams establish a good relationship and work closely together from the start.
Timings and messaging must be coordinated and care must be taken to ensure that any overlapping audiences receive information in the right way – don’t double up without knowing it, and don’t let anyone slip through the gaps.
Top tip: Develop a set of clear messages for use from day one – possibly quite top-line at first, but becoming more detailed as the process develops. Use plain English and short, clear sentences to communicate as honestly and openly as you are able to.
In 2011, two charities – ACT and Children’s Hospices UK – merged to become Together for Short Lives. Myra Johnson, director of communications and engagement, formerly of ACT, jointly led the communications with Andy Fletcher, her counterpart from Children’s Hospices UK. Myra said:
Our combined knowledge and experience helped us to take all our stakeholders on our merger journey. We developed a robust strategy, which covered every stakeholder group, with a core message running throughout.”
What not to say:
Nothing. People will have questions, so don’t ignore the situation and hope for the best. It’s fine to acknowledge when details are still unknown, but give people clear timescales for when information will become available. This way, you’ll feel under less pressure to say things before you’re ready.
Top tip: As well as communicating updates as things develop, invite people to come to you with any questions and queries they may have, and answer them as fully as you can in a timely manner. This establishes an open and engaged tone for the entire communications process, which will be appreciated by all.
Youth charity The Mix was borne of a 2016 merger of YouthNet and Get Connected. Chris Martin, The Mix’s chief executive officer, says it’s important to stay focused on what the merger process will achieve:
We knew there would be difficult moments and we wouldn’t get everything right first time, but a clear sense that what we were doing would directly benefit our users helped staff, trustees and volunteers to work together to overcome them.”
Half-truths and speculation. Avoid making statements about anything that is unknown or likely to change. Having to backtrack later will add to any sense of confusion and uncertainty.
Top tip: Once the communications process is underway, don’t take your foot off the pedal or stay chained to your desk. It’s vital that you are actively listening to people’s responses and engaging in real conversation with them. Monitor the way communications are being received and the questions being raised, so you can adapt and supplement later phases of your communications plan accordingly. Don’t ignore issues internally or externally; tackle them head on to avoid escalation.
Finally, don’t stop talking when the merger has happened. Commissioners, service users, staff and partners will all need reassurance that things have changed for the better. It’s a good time to repeat and reinforce the new organisation’s vision. Share positive stories about the impact the merger has had and get people excited about the new mission.
Top tip: After the signatures are on the dotted line, you still have a lot of work to do. The future vision for the organisation in its new form should continue to be repeated and reinforced. Ensure any changes to the brand and messaging are understood and observed by all staff.
Jacqui McCluskey, director of policy and communications at Homeless Link, which joined forces with Sitra in April 2016, agrees communication needs to be maintained:
It helps all staff feel part of the new set up, adjust to new roles or working processes, and keep morale high. It’s also key to communicate with others outside the organisation so they know who their key contacts are, should they change.”