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Never Hide a Merger

January 1, 2011

Associations considering a merger—or any other type of complex and lengthy decision-making process—face the question: How and when do we tell the members?

For many AEs and leaders, the instinct is to wait until “just the right time” during the process. It’s natural to reason that merger discussions will constantly shift and change, with ideas falling by the wayside and the possibility that the whole merger proposal will never even see the light of day. Plus—the reasoning continues—this type of internal process is more information than most members want, or need. Besides, you tell yourself, the fluid nature of the information will likely just confuse them.

Beware, however, that this impulse to play your cards close to the vest and not reveal merger plans until they are “solid” can turn into a disaster. As many organizations have learned through painful experience, a board that does not communicate early and often with members may finally reach the decision to merge only to see their months of hard work rejected by members as dishonest or, worse yet, sabotaged. Remember, your membership votes on your merger.

Communications plan for a merger process

Rather than waiting until a firm merger plan is in place, it’s vital to start communicating with members at the beginning of the process and maintain a dialogue throughout. For one thing, board members and leaders build trust around the process through open and transparent discussion with members. In addition, member concerns that could derail a merger should be understood and addressed at the beginning of merger talks, not when it’s too late. Finally, robust two-way communication between leaders and members develops the communication muscles needed to launch a successful merged organization, jump-starting the communications of the future.

Some key strategies for communicating during a merger include:

Survey interest in merger updates

Start the process of honest and frank discussion by asking members how they want to be kept informed about merger discussions. Your association leader-ship can initiate monthly face-to-face or online town-hall meetings to share the latest information, take questions, and gather feedback from members. You can use focus groups or polling tools to regularly check the pulse of your members and the latest merger scenarios. You could also start a merger Web site or blog to keep members constantly updated (see sidebar). How do you know which technique will work best for your organization? Consider asking your members at the beginning of the process which communications method(s) they prefer.

Participate in and monitor social media

Create an environment for examining the positive opportunities in the merger and allowing potential barriers to surface. The world of association communications is changing rapidly, as new social media tools allow for more interactive discussions between organizations and their members. If you haven’t started actively using Facebook, Twitter, or blogs yet, give your members a chance to hear changing merger ideas and offer their feedback, both positive and negative.

Posting videos by leaders explaining the how and why of a merger are also very effective because they deliver the personal side of this organizational process.

React to rumors

Rumors flourish in a vacuum, so make sure your members are getting regular and timely information from you as quickly as possible. Although a weekly e-newsletter may be your traditional communication method, it will most likely not be enough during a period when information is changing rapidly. You need a plan to ensure new information will get to your members first from you, whether through a special e-mail message, a weekly communiqué directly to brokers, or a Twitter alert.

Assign someone to monitor social media channels, and make sure you respond to any rumors or misinformation circulating about your association.

Don’t abandon business as usual

It is essential that you not let your overall marketing goals and messages screech to a halt when a merger is on the horizon. Make sure you continue to communicate value, keep members posted on market trends, keep members abreast of association news and events, and continue explaining what all this -information means to them.

Build new communication objectives

Start building your new association through strengthened relationships with members. Merger discussions may be the impetus for stepping up your communications and moving beyond one-way speeches, newsletters, and static Web sites to more engaging tools like video messages from your leaders, a blog that encourages members to interact with board members, or a series of webinars that both educate members about merger options and allow them to give you valuable ideas.

The goal of your communication is not only to educate members and send out information, but also to build a dialogue, which shows transparency and honesty.
Merger talks actually present your association leadership with a chance to develop new communication skills and share a new level of conversation with your members that can lead to stronger support as the merger talks solidify.

Merger Web sites keep members informed

When the St. Paul Area Association of REALTORS® set out to merge with the neighboring Southern Twin Cities Association of REALTORS® in 2009, it didn’t wait for members to call with questions. Association leaders preemptively launched a Web site developed specifically to communicate merger facts and goals.

Aptly named BuildingaBetterAssociation.com, the site featured merger news in text and video format, along with FAQs, graphics, and maps of the proposed new jurisdiction. The site was updated regularly throughout the process and used again in 2010 to communicate St. Paul’s latest merger with the North Metro REALTOR® Association, which will take effect in April.

The recently merged Miami Association of REALTORS® complemented its merger e-mails with videos on both merging associations’ Web sites featuring the board chairmen and association presidents. Miami also created a merger information page with FAQs, sent out mass messages through Twitter, and posted information on its Facebook page and blog.

Members kept out of the loop revolt against merger

As an example of just how forcefully members can rally against an association merger, take the group of California REALTORS® that created a Web site (http://savensdcar.com/mergerhuh.html), blog, and petition against the proposed merger of the North San Diego County Association of REALTORS® and the San Diego Association of REALTORS® in July. In an open letter to association directors posted on the group’s Web site the merger challengers posed 25 questions about the merger and said “all North San Diego County members are entitled to an explanation of why their board of directors is exploring a merger with SDAR without first consulting their members.” The merger was rejected by members in a July vote.

Melynn Sight is president of nSight Marketing. Contact her at 913-261-9100 or melynn@nsightmarketing.com.