Change is often the crux of any communications campaign—new executive leadership, a new product or branding, or an acquisition or divestiture—all entail sharing a vision of a new status quo.
At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Financial Communications Society (FCS), a group of veteran communicators shared their perspectives on “Change Management: Best Practices for Communicating Significant Changes to Internal and External Stakeholders.” Panelists included John Rumpf, Director of Corporate Communications at Baird; Courtney Reynolds, VP of Communications & Corporate Affairs at Northwestern Mutual; and Barb Bolens, VP of Corporate Strategy, Investor Relations & Comms at Actuant. A few themes emerged across their diverse experiences.
Acquisitions, mergers and deals drive event-related communications plans
John Rumpf’s career has been marked by regular deal communications as Baird effected numerous acquisitions. “The fundamentals of change communications stay the same,” said Rumpf. He stresses the importance of being inclusive and transparent. He starts with a core message that gets shared internally. Public disclosures are a “fast follow” rolling out the news via a release, updates to the website and social media. Rumpf stays close to the team at the acquired company during the process. “Not every firm will have communications support, so we often help them prepare a message and schedule a town hall meeting to share the news.”
Rumpf noted culture plays an important role. Baird works hard to assure acquired companies are culturally compatible. They try to share Baird’s culture from day one. “On the day of the acquisition we give what we call the Baird Hug—we fly there and give them a deep view of the Baird culture at a town meeting. We even send flowers to the families.” Rumpf notes they have a playbook with about three dozen things that are fundamental and must happen every time.
Not all deal communications go smoothly. In her work at several public companies, Actuant’s Barb Bolens was part of more than 30 deals including the acquisition of her prior employer by a Japanese firm. After extensive transparent and well-organized internal communications prior to the transaction, the buyer’s post-transaction communication dried up. That was difficult for the staff. There were significant cultural differences between the two companies about how much would be communicated. The vacuum made it difficult for local staff who were previously used to receiving more information.
Evolutionary change communications
Northwestern Mutual’s Courtney Reynolds described the process of change communications as “The Quiet Company” evolved. She described the change through three iterations. In version 1.0, the company was simply an insurance company selling traditional insurance products. In version 2.0, they expanded to help clients with both insurance and investments. Now in version 3.0, they are transforming the experience of financial security. “Financial products can be complex and intimidating, and our goal is to ease that for all of our clients.” To accomplish that means they must transform how they do business. “In the past, the field force was our focus, but now it is the end client, and we are redefining and reimaging the term client.”
Reynolds noted that in any change situation, you should ask several questions: Where are we going? How are we going to get there? What do we need to build? How much will it cost? How will we reward people? How do we connect the story to each individual and the role they play in making change happen? “You need to align the story across all aspects of the organization,” she explained.
In managing Northwestern Mutual’s communications, Reynolds uses data to help make decisions. Online, she pays attention to what her audience is clicking on. They conduct polls and surveys to see what is resonating across various content vehicles.
Reynolds pointed out that her CEO is the partner with corporate strategy and she works closely with all the executive officers to parse out strategy. “We have to rely on the leaders. But we can’t assume they will always know what to do.”
Bolens is charged with communicating change at her company too. Being only a few weeks into her role, she is asking questions and determining how they move the story through the whole organization. She noted, “I can only be new once, and I can help by looking with fresh eyes.”
She has learned that external audiences, including investors, seem to understand the story. But internal audiences need additional focus. Her company’s CEO is only 2 ½ years into the job and almost the entire leadership team has changed. The prior CEO and CFO were widely respected and connected, but now the new style of leadership needs to bring employees along. She must engage employees and help them understand the strategy and why it is changing.
The tools of communications
Rumpf noted that the fundamental communications tools are the same across transactions. “We rely on communication from senior leaders and line managers to get the message out.” He continues to monitor media outcomes using standard tools like Cision, Critical Mention and Google Alerts. “What has changed the most is the velocity—technology, social media and pressures on news gatherers means that information moves more and more quickly.”
Reynolds’ team has invested in measuring the impact of their internal communications (which in turn drives their external communications strategy) by using the Gallup 12 Employee Engagement Survey and the McKinzie Organizational Health Index. “This helps us pinpoint where we need to focus our efforts.”
Bolens also uses internal tools such as engagement surveys and shares information via Actuant’s intranet to try to reach internal audiences. After creating a strategic communications plan, Bolens monitors traffic on the internal intranet and looks for ways to communicate digitally. She noted, “Public companies have an extra level of difficulty as communications must comply with the SEC’s regulation on full disclosure or Reg FD.” Bolens monitors all communications to make sure that material, non-public information isn’t being disclosed.
Getting the word out
Reynolds stressed that is important to overcommunicate in times of change. “You need to repeat messages, make it real and use examples. Have a real person explain it on video. Try to personalize it with a daily email to the field.” She has also looked to get their messages out in new ways such as placing the Chief Investment Officer on TV or leveraging the Foundation. Reynolds approached “mommy bloggers” to help to spread the brand message “spend life living.” She said, “We are trying to engage these types of influencers using different memes and other culturally salient platforms.”
“Ah, changes are takin’ the pace I’m goin’ through.” David Bowie said it well in the classic song “Changes.” Financial communicators recognize that otherwise staid financial firms often undertake real and significant change. They are best served by embracing this change and moving through the paces to help their organizations transform and grow.