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Companies Can't Forget Employees in M&A Comms

By Brittaney Kiefer 

Companies undergoing a merger or acquisition pour time and resources into preparing for the deal's announcement, but the biggest communications challenges come afterward. With mega-mergers back in the spotlight, corporate comms experts say the importance of keeping employees in the loop throughout the process cannot be underestimated.

“Follow-up communications is huge. A lot of times, there's a deal, and then there are crickets,” says Brian Schaffer, transaction services practice leader at Prosek Partners. “In the old days, you could get away with telling one group one thing and one group another. Now, while you might tailor messages to each group, your overarching message about why you're doing this transaction and why it makes sense has to be consistent.” 

That advice holds especially true for employee-facing communications, which must be a top priority in M&A deals, PR leaders say.

“This is a really scary time for employees,” says David Chamberlin, EVP and GM of Edelman's Dallas office. “During any merger or acquisition, there are always concerns about who is going to get laid off, or what the company will do with redundancies.” 

Employees at a range of companies likely have those concerns right now. American Airlines and US Airways Group said on Thursday they plan to merge in an $11 billion deal that would create the world's largest airline. The combined company, called American Airlines Group, will retain the American Airlines brand and Fort Worth, TX, headquarters. American shareholders will own 72% of the company, but US Airways CEO Doug Parker will lead it.

Also on Thursday, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and private equity firm 3G Capital agreed to buy Heinz for $23 billion, one of the biggest acquisitions in food industry history.

Meanwhile, US drug wholesaler Cardinal Health said it will purchase medical supplier AssuraMed for $2 billion, and Anheuser-Busch InBev reworked its takeover bid for Grupo Modelo by agreeing to sell some of its Mexican beer brands to wine company Constellation Brands.

Corporate leaders can address employees' concerns by communicating with workers regularly and being as transparent as possible, Chamberlin and others say. Employees should have an outlet to ask questions, whether through town hall meetings, a dedicated phone line, a microsite, emails, or other methods.

“Otherwise they will fill that vacuum with their own fears and uncertainties,” says David Roady, senior MD at FTI Consulting.

Combining two large, complex organizations is a massive undertaking that can take months or even years, and a lot can go wrong. Airlines, for example, face the risk of service glitches when integrating their technology and reservation systems.

Confusion could arise among customers and vendors over billing issues or rewards programs. Companies could also run into internal culture clashes.

Employee support is critical during these changes, communications leaders say.

“The goal is for employees to feel incentivized to stay and grow in the combined company,” says Hill+Knowlton Strategies EVP Claire Koeneman.

Employee engagement is especially critical at consumer-facing companies such as airlines because their attitudes can have a direct effect on customers, agency executives explain. Some pointed to past airline mergers, such as the 2010 deal between United Airlines and Continental Airlines as an example.

“During other [airline] mergers, I've heard very public complaints from employees and flight attendants in front of customers, which isn't good for employee morale or customer relationships,” Chamberlin says. “Employees have a lot of power to disrupt what's happening with everyday travelers, so there is a lot of work that needs to be done at all levels of management to let employees know they're valued.”

Phil Denning, MD at ICR, says companies should be focused on “value creation” when communicating with employees and other stakeholder groups.

“Be clear with people about what the vision is, and why you're pursuing this transaction,” Denning says. “It's the ‘what's in it for me?' questions that you need to be addressing.”

If Thursday's flurry of deals is any indicator, the previously sleepy M&A market could be on the rise. The total value of M&A transactions announced since January has reached nearly $160 billion, the fastest start to a year since 2005, according to Dealogic.

In an ideal end to these transactions, “all employees and stakeholders would feel that they were brought along in the process with a steady continuum of communications, so the vision is clarified and they understand what is in it for them in the process,” Roady says.