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Alex MacLaverty | Solving Business Challenges With Communications
POSTED 7.14.20 M&A Masters Podcast

Communication is vital during an M&A transaction, on both sides, externally and internally. Clarity is a PR firm that works to help companies get through the deal, from media relations to crisis management.

It can be a stressful process… and certainly not the time to “wing it.”

As Alex explains, they use a change management model called ADKAR to shepherd organizations and people through times of transition, get buy in, and make sure new policies and procedures “stick.”

We get into detail on that, as well as…

  • Strategies for integrating vastly different company cultures (and customer bases)
  • COVID and post-COVID communications strategies
  • What they do when deal details leak
  • How they balance confidentiality and the need to share information
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:

Transcript

Patrick Stroth: Hello there. I’m Patrick Stroth. Welcome to M&A Masters where I speak with the leading experts in mergers and acquisitions. And we’re all about one thing here, that’s a clean exit for owners, founders and their investors. Today I’m joined again by Alex MacLaverty global COO of Clarity PR. Clarity PR defines itself as an agency with a heart of a startup, working with rebels and Titans. We take risks, solve problems, learn, adapt, and deliver fearless global communications.

This is the second of two conversations I had with Alex discussing the role of communications in mergers and acquisitions. In the first conversation we had, Alex talked about the role of communications for Clarity PR as its own strategic acquire itself where it has had a number of acquisitions and we’ve talked through case studies of what she did. To find that recording, simply go to Google, Apple iTunes, look up the podcasts and just search for M&A Masters and you’ll find it. M ampersand A Masters.

It’ll be there, it’s the only one out there. Today we’re going to discuss the best practices for communications both internally and externally for participants in an M&A transaction, and this is where Clarity provides the role of advisor on holding the hand and shepherding the parties through this process. Communications in M&A are absolutely critical, particularly when you consider how much confidential sensitive information is being handled by a limited number of parties and how do you get that message out as other parties are added to the process. So it’s not as easy as it looks as I like to think. Alex, welcome back. Thanks again for joining me.

Alex MacLaverty: It’s a pleasure to be back.

Patrick: Now before we get into the nuts and bolts on what Clarity PR does in terms of communications for others in M&A, let’s get a little context. Tell us about Clarity PR itself.

Who Are Clarity PR and What Are They All About?

Alex: Well, thank you for the introduction. I think you said a lot of it already actually, which is great. Saves me a job. But to give you a feel for us, Clarity was an agency founded specifically to bridge the gap between the very large multinational agencies that you’ve probably all heard of, and the sort of small local boutique agencies and we like to think that we are in the perfect spot where we’re not too big, not too small for our clients.

We’ve got offices at the moment in London, New York, San Francisco and LA. So we serve, obviously, the US market and Europe out of London. And we’ve got partners across the world as well that we work with because obviously, a lot of comms needs to be handled in multiple markets these days. But we really focus on tech-enabled companies.

Not usually the biggest player in the markets, we tend to sit very well to the heart of a startup filled with challenges. So, some of the companies that are doing the most disruptive, innovative things in the market and really looking to challenge what’s out there already. And we specifically enjoy working with clients that have exciting stories to tell where there’s a really positive change coming out of the work that they’re doing and we’re able to bring that to life.

Patrick: And this is more than just press releases too. This is also going to be internal communications on how you go ahead and get messaging internally through, and then with the counterparties and so forth.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, sorry. We cover everything from media relations through to content marketing, digital, social, internal comms, crisis management, of which there is a lot in M&A as you know, and everything in between. So we tend to enjoy a very privileged position as advisors on sort of business strategy as well in a lot of cases because we get to deal quite often with, directly with a CEO, particularly in mergers and acquisitions.

Patrick: Let’s look at what we’re doing with communication specifically in the world of M&A, okay? And I, and you and I’ve had this conversation before. The communication is a skill set that a lot of us take for granted because particularly if you’re in the professional field, we believe we’re communicating all the time. We either spoken or written, we’re constantly using sophisticated language and, you know, being aware and getting out there to a whole lot of people.

And that’s not the same skillset you need when you’re dealing with, you know, highly sensitive, confidential information and being able to get it out at a measured time, particularly in the case of an M&A situation. You really can’t wing it. And you guys don’t. You’re not improvising on this on the fly. You go ahead and you have a real set process. So could you briefly go over that process that you use for the, I guess the hierarchy of the communications?

ADKAR

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the most important thing is to take a look at the whole picture of what you’re trying to achieve with the deal and then work back from it. And I think it’s very easy for communications to end up siloed in individual departments or with individual people. And so our role is really to take that overview of the whole process so that we can make sure that everything’s been joined up and is working consistently.

There’s a process I talked about on the last podcast, which is the ADKAR model, ADKAR, which is, we’ve used for many years with great success, which just really acts as a reminder of the different processes you need to go through. It was devised for change management. So if you think of a deal as a process of change, both for the individuals being impacted, for the market, for the businesses as a whole, it seems to work well in terms of making sure that you just check off everything you need to. Just to recap very briefly, the first step one, that is awareness, so making sure that the parties involved have an understanding that there is a need to change.

The D is the second step which stands for desire, which is actually inculcating in the people involved this desire to have that change happen. So for a positive outcome, and it’s only at that stage that you then start to impart the knowledge, which can take the form of training or communications to the team so that they really start to understand what it means for them and how they’re going to be working with it. The A is the ability, so giving them the toolkits they need to apply that change. So that could be equipping sales teams with new materials, it could be doing some of the sort of operational and logistics side of things.

And then the R stands for reinforcement, which is obviously, just making sure that once the change has happened, you don’t just assume that it’s stuck. And it’s about going back again and reinforcing that awareness and that desire for the change until you feel like you’ve got a properly integrated business once again. It’s a very helpful way to navigate the uncertainties and the kind of scariness I think for lots of people involved either, you know, at a senior level or at a sort of junior level, in any kind of change. And it certainly helps to inform our communication strategies when we’re working with clients.

Patrick: So what I like about this is that this isn’t just composing a press release announcing a deal. There’s got to be a way that you are ensuring that the deal ends up with a post-closing integration process that’s successful. And in order for that, and I love how you guys frame this, is this is all about change, and that people have to be aware of the change.

They’ve got to understand, not only understand it, but then actually want it before you spend a lot of energy-giving them the skill set and the tools to move forward. If they don’t want it, you could have the greatest training in the world and they’re just not gonna buy into it. With mergers and acquisitions, we got issues with confidentiality and, you know, it can go big swings, depending on the parties in place, and the sensitivity of the information. How do you balance the need to make people aware and confidentiality?

When Details Leak…

Alex:  it’s a gray area to focus on because it is a very tricky one. And I think there is something in human nature that means when you know a secret, you really want to tell everyone about it. And particularly when you’re excited about a deal, I think people find it very hard to keep it to themselves. Particularly with the workload that involves, you know, people just have a need to share, which obviously isn’t always the most sensible thing to do.

Obviously, it’s critical that you observe the terms of any deal and keep things confidential when you have to. I think there’s a few challenges specifically around that. One is that usually the most senior people in an organization seem to feel that that rule doesn’t always apply to them. So some of the most interesting challenges I’ve faced on the communication side of things has been from a CEO letting it slip to somebody who’s a friend in a club or whatever.

And we’re the ones I have to pick up the pieces on that. Journalists are very good at getting, thinking they can get information off the record when obviously, if the information is interesting enough, then nothing is off the record. So keeping things to yourself is always a bit of a challenge, just generally. Where I see our role is really in having taken that bigger view of what the challenges are likely to be and what the communications considerations are, is trying to get involved as early as possible in the tabling of the deal and the discussions around what can and can’t be said so that we are in a position to try and influence that for the best.

Experience shows that the earlier you can start to bring people along on the journey with you, the better the outcome. And therefore if we can put certain, you know, opportunities in place to start getting a team up to speed with the fact that change is coming, even if we’re not able to discuss what that change might be or speak to the media about plans and ambitions so that they’re getting warmed up, ready to accept a change in circumstance and that usually really helps us out and helps the client out in terms of getting the outcome they want.

So we try to get involved as early as possible. I think the other thing is that you need to have a very clear comms plan so that you can be agile, because you never know, as we’re discussing, when something’s going to come out. So the comms has to come right at the beginning of any planning. It’s not an add on, it’s not a secondary thing. We’ll figure that out once a deal is signed.

We like to get involved as early as possible so that should something go awry, we are able to kick in with a plan straightaway. So I’ve had an example where the deal was leaked to an employee who then told the rest of the staff. And so obviously, luckily enough, we had a, we had the commerce plan ready so we were able to kick in straight away. We had that email prepped from the CEO explaining what was going on. So with a few quick tweaks, we were able to address that situation immediately. If we didn’t get organized so far in advance, that kind of situation can be very easy to mishandle.

Patrick: Yeah, that gets real difficult too because if the message gets out and you’re scrambling and you’re not prepared to respond within less than 24 hours, I can imagine the narrative has been written. Why don’t you, because that’s always a real big issue is dealing with the employees because obviously, they’re going to hit the panic button. Their first survival instinct is what about me and my job and so forth. So I can imagine a lot of things like that happened. Talk about a couple of cases where, as you alluded to just now, where your services come in and impact the deal. How does what you do benefit clients?

Alex: I’ll give you a couple of examples naming no names. But to give you one example, so there was a client that I worked on who were very well known in their market kind of tech brand, but they were very, very cool in their space. They have a lot of fairly a sort of gang of followers, if you like, among the tech community. So quite geeky. They like to get the sweatshirts. And they go to the events and they were seen as a real sort of challenger in the space.

And that company was being bought by a very large, very established, quite boring, definitely not cool, larger tech player. And so the challenge, obviously, from the outset was how do we bring their fan base and their client base along which was a key reason for the acquisition without disenfranchising them because we knew that as soon as they heard who they were, you know, who they were being bought by, they were going to be kicking off all over social media and, you know, saying terrible things. So

Patrick: Were those sellouts?

Alex: Absolutely, absolutely. And so there was a lot of stock in being able to secure that fan base on that client base, because obviously, if that goes, then there’s much less point to the deal. So we started working in the very early doors to make sure that we’ve got the messaging, right. We worked with, on a very confidential basis, with a couple of influences who we took into the confidence of the deal and we were able to actually run ideas past. And so we’re able to use them as a sanity check on the messaging that we’re using.

They were able to advise us on points that may be as non-geeks, we hadn’t thought about things that would resonate with the community and things that wouldn’t. And so we ended up with a commerce arm which was quite different to a lot of the client-focused plans that we put together, normally, and this one involves a lot of roadshows and events where we’d actually go and meet the fans, you know, in a sort of comfortable environment for them. We media train the CEO of the acquiring company specifically, told him what to wear so that he didn’t allow them with his suits and his, you know, monogram shirts.

So we turned that down a little, and also looked a lot more at things like social content. We produce some animations for them to use to kind of get the right write messages across so that people could understand why this change was happening. And that was a really useful way to do it because we were getting the inside knowledge, which was obviously very helpful to create the right messaging platforms. But also, we’re able to really get the content to the place where the fans were able to understand why the change was happening And we’re able to sort of, they were never 100% happy with the deal.

I think it was hard to convert everybody. But the client drop off rate was very low. And, you know, we were reliably told that that was a lot to do with the way that we’d handled the client taking the customer base with us. It’s great when we get given a lot of free reign because, you know, the more client leans on us, the better able we are to serve them. When we’re just told we need a press release on this, it’s never going to end well. Whereas if we’re able to get under the skin of all the different challenges, we can put together a much more comprehensive program for the client.

Patrick: Give me a profile. What’s an ideal client for Clarity PR?

Alex: The clients that we like to work with are, tend to be more in the scale upside of things. They tend to be very progressive, usually challenger brands in their markets doing something disruptive, as I said. The key thing is that they have a really solid business challenge and they’re there looking for a partner in overcoming that challenge through communications. As I say, I think things, relationships where we’re expected to just put out press releases for any agency, that’s never a particularly inspiring role and I don’t think it creates any value for our clients.

And so the best clients are the ones that will allow us, will sort of give us the keys to the kingdom and allow us in to spend time with the team to really get to grips with what their challenges are, and then give us free rein to put some proposals in place that will help to address those. But tech is a fantastic space. And luckily, there’s no shortage of exciting businesses in that space. So we’re very spoiled, particularly at the moment, because technology is just such a hot area. So it’s great to In such a vibrant kind of marketplace at the moment.

Patrick: And I would say there’s no industry with a more glaring, I’m not going to call it weakness but a glaring non-strength is human chain of communications within technology. And so I think that’s an ideal fit for where you bring in the softer side, the people skills and that fun stuff. When you’re onboarding, let’s talk about timeline, what’s the usual life cycle for you, particularly in an M&A situation? Okay, how long in advance should they be talking to you? Or can you get up and running quickly? Give us an idea of what the onboarding process looks like.

Onboarding at Clarity PR

Alex: It’s possible to get started very quickly. There are some shortcuts to this kind of thing. But my recommendation is always that as soon as you think there’s a deal about to be, you know, a deal in the pipeline, then bring us on board. Ideally, you know, when you’re at the letter of intent kind of stage, that’s a great time to be starting to talk to us because we can help them form the process from there. You know, obviously some clients, this is a regular thing for them in the tech space.

There’s something happening, you know, every other month, whereas other clients who may be that they literally just suddenly decide that they need some comms help because they’re about to do a deal. So we’d be important on both kinds of things. But the main thing is to invite us in as part of the team. You know, if we can have a seat at the table, we can understand the challenges that are going through among the people that are discussing the deal and are working through the processes, then that gives us, as we were discussing earlier, a huge amount of insight into where the problems might crop up.

And there’s a, you know, there’s a lot about comms and I think people think that Oh, if you’re a publicist, you’re always about talking about the good news. That’s the really easy part. And the bit where we add the scale is identifying the tricky questions, the challenges we’re going to get from the media, the what about this? What does this mean? Why don’t you talk about this? So the quicker we can start thinking about the difficult questions the more we can help you avoid getting those questions in the first place.

Patrick: Have there ever been any problems with communications where the message isn’t going to be good and as the buyer is considering a deal, as they’re looking at it and we’re talking about potential problems, how are we going to communicate these problems? Communications ever talked anybody out of the deal?

Alex: Very good question. I’m gonna have to say no, in my experience, simply because I don’t want to be seen as a bad luck charm. But it does raise some very interesting questions. And I think that’s the other thing about having an independent person in the room in some of those conversations is that we can bring that independent perspective.

We don’t have a financial stake in these deals, but we can put ourselves in the shoes of your employees, in the shoes of your clients, in the shoes of the media. And it almost gives us a license to ask the question. So quite often, other people in the room maybe want to ask but they don’t dare to. And so I think there’s also value in bringing that sort of outsider perspective to the table so that you can get all of these things ironed out ahead of the deal.

Patrick: Wow. Well, as we’re sitting here talking now, we’re hopefully on the downside of the COVID-19. And there are already conversations about ramping up for businesses returning to work and so forth. If you can share with us, what are your projections for the future either with M&A, with communications for Clarity, you know, what do you see down the road probably, you know, late third quarter and beyond?

Post-COVID Communication Strategies

Alex: That’s a great question. And that’s what we’re spending a lot of time thinking about at the moment and working with clients on is what comes after COVID. And I think no one knows yet quite what that’s going to look like. But it’s definitely worth putting some thought into it at this stage. A lot of our clients, they’ve had to change the way that they communicate through this crisis. Some have stopped and doing other things. Some are doubling down on what they want to be saying.

And some are obviously just changing tact, completely changing their messaging. So I think there’s going to be a period of settling down after this. And I think, you know, there’s still quite a lot of deals around. And as I said, we’re very lucky to be mainly focused around the tech sector, which is, there’s still a lot of deals going on. It will be interesting to see what happens once the deals that are currently in the pipeline have sort of made their way through.

But I think certainly from a commerce perspective, there’s going to be a lot of regrouping and remessaging. I don’t think any of us can expect things to go back to exactly how they were pre the virus, and therefore, the way that we approach deals, the way that we approach communications, I think there’ll be a naturally a lot more caution, but also a willingness to kind of get back on and get back up to speed quite quickly. So it’s going to be an interesting time, I think, all around.

Patrick: One other thing I want to just impart with the audience real quick and why I’m so pleased to have you, there was advice that I heard a father give his son who was a technology, very well educated in tech and was doing, he was on a good fast track to success. And his father insisted that he get a job, summer job either at a Starbucks or at just someplace where he had to talk to people. And the son, you know, stereotypical tech introvert guy, very, very sharp, nice kid just didn’t have the people skills.

But the father said, you need to get out there and be with people and communicate and learn how to do that. And the son objected. And the father said, Look, the best ideas and the ideas in a boardroom that get listened to and your bosses out there, they’re going to promote, not, they’re not always promoting the smartest person in the room. They’re going to promote the person who has the best message who can pitch their idea most effectively.

And so you can’t understate the value of communications. We’re human beings. This is, you know, everything happens with humans until artificial intelligence takes over. So I can’t stress that enough in the great work that Clarity PR does. And, you know, I wish you all the success. And thank you very much for joining us today. Alex, how can our audience find you?

Alex: You can look me up on LinkedIn or give me an email at alex@clarity.pr. It would be great to hear from anyone.

Patrick: Yes, some of us are visual. We say dot com by habit. It’s clarity.pr. Alex, thanks again and we will talk again soon.

Alex: Thank you.