As part of the continuing aftermath of the economic meltdown of 2009, there is lots of talk of an increase in nonprofit mergers. While some organizations have already shut their doors, others are considering a merger as a means to survival. In my experience [I have worked for two large philanthropies that merged] the road to successful merger is filled with many potholes that can make for a very bumpy trip. To ease the journey organizations must have a strong belief in the value of effective communications and a person at the helm of their communications command post whom they respect, trust and will follow.
If you are charged with communicating about a planned merger or are already in the communications hot seat of a newly merged organization, walk down the hall to your CEO and have a long conversation with her (more likely him) followed by a similar one with the organization’s leadership. Make sure they understand that effectively communicating a range of issues related to the merger with the staffs, leadership, supporters and donors is everyone’s job # 1.
The conversation with your leadership should focus on getting everyone clear about the newly merged organization’s mission statement. Too often, organizations enter mergers, announce them publicly and somehow forget to secure agreement about its mission. The result damages your efforts to instill confidence in the new organization, and can cause confusion and conflict between the merging staffs and leaderships.
Of course, the CEO and chairperson of the new entity have the responsibility to get the new mission defined and agreed upon by all parties. That may be the easy part. The more difficult task is effectively communicating the new mission and purpose. If left to chance, maverick leadership, angry employees or a casual blogger will and can start to define you before you get around to it.
As chief communications officer, your job is to give your leadership and staff a work plan that guides everyone through the thicket of issues and unforeseen challenges that will inevitably emerge. You will need a 30 day action plan and a 12 month long range plan – both of which will require your constant stewardship and will be in constant revision.
Expect to deliver weekly messages to the media, to staff and to leadership during the first month following the merger announcement and regularly as the merger unfolds. Prepare yourself and your key leaders to serve as spokespersons and provide training to keep them “on message.”
Prepare your communications team for the tasks ahead. They will need to understand that now their assignments include explaining and positioning the new organization as well as communicating the work it does. You should not assume they will intuitively grasp this twist in their roles unless you tell them. Remember, they too are living through the merger and will need guidance to meet your performance expectations.
Strong, goal-oriented communications leadership is an absolute necessity to assure that effective message strategies are employed to root the newly merged organization and give it the best chance to flourish. Get ready for the challenge by gathering your people, your own will to succeed and the inner strength you will need for the long days ahead.
Gail Hyman is a marketing and communications professional, with deep experience in both the public and private sectors. She currently focuses her practice, Gail Hyman Consulting, on assisting Jewish nonprofit organizations increase their ranks of supporters and better leverage their communications in the Web 2.0 environment. Gail is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.