Published: 18 May 2012

How to communicate around a charity merger

Pressures on funding and donations, public confusion and the competitive environment around public service tendering are all driving an increasing number of charities to consider merging.

Two questionnaires issued in February by the Office for Civil Society, as part of Lord Hodgson’s review of the Charities Act, ask whether there are too many charities. And in a recent poll on the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, 62 per cent of charities said they felt a merger would make them more efficient.

Bringing two organisations together (or more, in some cases) can certainly drive efficiency and provide an opportunity for significant positive change. But there is also plenty of room for things to go wrong along the way – either before a merger goes through, or after the deal is done.

Communications has a central role in making sure things run smoothly and for the benefit of all involved. So here are some tips to help charity communicators play their part.

Have a clear plan of action

Communicating openly and promptly at the earliest opportunities during the process will allow you to minimise speculation and misunderstanding.

It may feel impossible to create a plan when everything is in a state of flux or negotiation, but it’s crucial that you’re clear on the timeline that communications should be structured around. Plan how information will be cascaded to all the relevant audiences at key stages in the process. If the timings change, your plan will help you understand the knock-on effects of that and allow you to adapt accordingly.

Establish clear messages

Winning the support of staff and stakeholders is vital, but you can only build that support by giving them a real understanding of the reasons behind the merger and what it will mean for them as individuals, as well as for the organisation as a whole. Arm yourself with a robust and crystal-clear set of messages from day one. These should be tailored to each group so they are told what they need and want to know, in a language they’ll find easy to understand

Work together 

Whether the merger is a meeting of two equal partners, or one organisation is in the driving seat, it’s important that you both work closely together to plan and deliver communications. You need to be saying the same things, at the same time, every step of the way. Check whether there are any overlapping audiences so you can decide how best to speak to them without creating confusion, and make sure no one slips through the gaps.

Engage in discussion

It’s important to encourage two-way discussion, rather than just pumping out your messages. Use your intranet or create a simple internal social media platform to allow information to be shared and talked about in forum-style spaces. Make sure you monitor discussions and take the time to respond to any questions or to correct any misinformation. The openness will be appreciated by all.

Be consistent 

Once you’ve started sharing information you need to stay on message. If you need to tailor things as the process develops that’s fine, but make sure the essence of what you’re saying is the same as it was on day one. Consistency builds clarity and establishes trust, while any hint of confusion will quickly make people wonder if you’re telling them the whole story.

Put senior managers in the lead 

Senior management should front all communications, to demonstrate strong and confident leadership and a clear vision for the future. You may want to arrange training in face-to-face communication, as well as media training so they are able to handle tricky questions and stay on message at all times.

Monitor things closely

Once you’ve kicked things off, don’t stay chained to your desk. Get out and about and make time to listen to people’s responses, so you can respond promptly and adapt and supplement later stages of your communications plan. Don’t ignore issues internally or externally – tackle them head on.

Post-merger communications 

You still have a lot of work to do after the signatures are on the dotted line. You’ll need to reinforce the future vision for the organisation and make sure that any changes to the brand and messaging are fully bedded-in. Get positive stories out to your external audiences as quickly as possible, to reassure them that it is either business as usual or that things have changed for the better as a result of the merger.

To download the Amazon intro to merger communications and a range of other free guides, visit www.amazonpr.co.uk/resources


Kirsty Kitchen, account director, Amazon PR