Our 20-year-old public relations firm — the Bradford Group — recently merged with a 30-year-old advertising and PR agency — the Dalton Agency. It has been a big win for everyone — more resources across more disciplines for our clients, more opportunities for our employees, better technology, more opportunities to sell our services to a broadened base of prospects. Not only did clients and employees receive the news of this merger well, but it also boosted our reputation in the local business community.
Of course, it could have been a disaster. Here are some lessons we learned about how to do a merger right:
Culture Is Key
Right upfront, make sure the cultures of the two organizations mesh well. It begins at the top: If the two CEOs get along, the chances are good that their organizations will, as well, as the culture of most companies is a manifestation of the CEO’s personality. But it’s not always a sure thing. So, quickly after the deal is signed, it is vital that the CEO of the company you’ve merged with conducts a Q&A with your employees. Your staff needs to get to know them and trust them. Transparency is key from day one.
Take It Slow, But Don’t Procrastinate
People need time to digest a big announcement like a merger, so don’t start moving desks around the first day. Give it a little time to sink in. But don’t wait too long to start taking concrete action to blend the two organizations into one, because you run the danger of employees thinking nothing will change, which can cause anxiety when things do change.
Get Everyone Involved In The Integration
One of the best things we did was set up about a dozen integration teams, with just about every employee in the two formerly separate companies on one of the teams. There were teams to study integrating tech systems, to integrate messaging, to integrate and coordinate perks and benefits, and many more. Creating these teams assured that this important work of creating one company out of two was accomplished, and involving everyone assured that employees felt part of this new thing we built — because they helped to shape it.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Our new firm is spread across three cities: Nashville, Atlanta and Jacksonville. This geographic reach, combined with the fact that our merger occurred just as the pandemic was beginning, presented a challenge of creating a common culture. So, we over-communicated to compensate, holding a series of agency-wide and departmental meetings via Zoom on a regular basis for the first six months after the merger. Some of these meetings were just fun, designed to introduce us to each other. Others were all business. But they all worked to bring us together and feel like a team.
Being a PR firm, we, of course, knew the importance of clear messaging and getting the message right was the first thing we did, even before the merger was final. Then we made sure that everyone — and we mean everyone in the company — knew what our messages were so that we had a consistent message across all channels, not just media channels, but family, friends, church, competitors, etc. Everyone.
Don’t Let Your Clients Read About It First In The Newspaper
Soon after the merger has become official, and right after employees are told, reach out to your clients and let them know the good news. Big clients need a phone call. An email is fine for all other clients, but be quick to call them if they express any questions at all. The key here is to assure clients that they can continue to expect to get everything they’ve always looked to you for — that nothing has changed in how you do business or in your commitment to them — but that now you have even more to offer. Informing clients is the scariest part of this whole process, but I was pleasantly surprised how drama-free it actually was. They were all delighted to hear the news and quickly saw the benefits.
Hit The Ground Running On Sales
Your competitors may attempt to tell a different story than the one you are telling (i.e., that things are sure to change at your firm after the merger, that clients will probably suffer from lack of attention, that the merger was to solve a deep problem, etc.). The best way to fight back against this assault, in addition to getting out the news yourself and controlling the story, is to immediately ramp up your sales efforts. And you will find sales much easier than before because the merger likely gave you a lot more to sell.
If you are prepared, are transparent with your employees and keep them in the loop — and make them part of the transition — and if you control the story, you will find merging your firm with another one to be one of the best business decisions of your life.
(Originally appeared in Forbes.)