Merger communications: Navigating choppy waters
Merger activity in the legal sector continues apace. Just last week Shakespeare Martineau announced a merger with Bristol firm GL Law and according to recent research by our client Acquira Professional Services, nearly half of law firms are considering M&A.
Communications is an important aspect of any M&A strategy, given the potential for press scrutiny and the need for buy-in from partners, staff, clients and other stakeholders.
Getting merger communications wrong can cause reputational damage, impact staff morale and even jeopardise the merger itself. Even if the merger never happens, as was the case with Seddons and Lawrence Stephens who announced the end of their merger talks in May, careful handling is required to manage press interest.
Planning and preparation
All larger firms need a position on merger, even if it’s not on the horizon. Legal journalists tasked with tracking your firm will invariably ask about whether potential mergers are part of your growth strategy, so it’s important to have an agreed line.
You should ensure your legal PR team is made aware of any merger discussions at an early stage. Often only a select circle of management will be privy to merger talks and will be understandably reluctant to tell too many employees. It is vital however, that senior communications staff are part of that inner circle. There will always be the potential for the story to leak and you need to be prepared for that, rather than being forced to scrabble around for a statement due to an unanticipated journalist call.
With early warning, the communications team will have time to agree holding statements and put together questions and answers, signed off and ready to go, should the need arise. It will often be the case that none of these ever see the light of day but it will be well worth it in the event of media or client attention.
Your messaging here needs to outline the rationale behind any merger and give context in relation to your firm’s strategy and culture. The level of detail will depend on how advanced merger talks are – from initial stage talks where a short statement is sufficient, to more detailed explanations on synergies, cultural fit, rationale and management structure, as talks progress.
The trajectory of a merger can be long and as the weeks and months go on you will need to review and update your comms, responding to the outcomes of negotiations and to the responses of employees, the press and clients.
This process will be harder for those firms which are effectively being acquired or are in financial difficulties so getting assistance from your legal PR team on messaging will be crucial.
Internal communication will be central to the success of any merger, you will need partner buy-in to make it happen but also need to bear in mind the concerns of all fee earners and business services staff who will be thinking about what it means for them and their careers. Concerns about redundancy, changes to location, culture and leadership will require assurances.
There should never be a situation where staff learn of a merger through a news piece in The Lawyer so alongside your PR statements you should have equivalent internal communications lined up, carrying the same messaging.
Trust will be important here, so be careful not to give false assurances. If you are unable to answer questions, be clear on when updates will be forthcoming.
Avoid a vacuum where gossip can flourish, ensure management is the main source of information and that all line managers are briefed so that staff can ask questions. You will also need to coordinate with your merger partner’s PR team if they have one.
Smaller firms with a limited PR function may want to bring in outside communications resource to help communicate with both the media and staff, particularly if merger with a larger counterpart is shining a spotlight on them for the first time.
Making a merger a success needs buy in from all stakeholders and good communications will play an important role in making that happen. Missteps early on can impact the narrative, unsettling staff and potentially leading to reputational damage, so take the time to prepare and plan so you get your PR and internal communications right from day one.