A merger is by its very nature a time of change and disruption, but in an education environment, where the focus should be on the welfare and outcome of current and future pupils, emotions run high and opposing opinions are plentiful. It’s certainly going to be a hot topic for the media.
The constant flow of negative headlines regarding academy trusts might leave you feeling concerned about how to communicate during a merger and how your messages may be received. However, good PR is especially important during these challenging times.
You can’t stop the media reporting, but you can control the messages. Get it right and you can influence your stakeholders to feel positively about what you are doing and to understand the benefits your changes will bring. Get it wrong and they will feel left in the dark about what is happening and make their own, probably negative assumptions.
There is an abundance of advice and support out there for managing the merger process on an operational level, however, there is a distinct lack of guidance about how to plan and manage the communication.
So, how do you manage PR during a period of organisational change and disruption? Here are our top 10 tips for effective PR and communications during an academy trust merger:
Plan your communications – If you want good, effective communications to support your merger activities you need a comprehensive communications plan. All communications need to be considered from letters to parents and teachers to press releases and statements on your website as well as how you will respond to enquiries on social media. Your plan will detail what messages need to be shared, who you want to share them with and when they need to be distributed. Planning your communications is the most important step. As your merger progresses you will attract more and more attention to your activities. Having a plan in place will ensure you are able to communicate both reactively to new enquires from your stakeholders and journalists as well as proactively pushing out your positive messages.
Consider the current climate – How do stakeholders currently feel about your academy trust and the one you are going to merge with? How have both trusts been portrayed in the press? It is important to remember that previous communications (or lack of them) will have influenced perceptions. Your stakeholders may still have strong opinions which could be positive or negative. Understanding where you are starting from means you can pitch your communications at the right level and tailor what you say to meet the needs and expectations of your audience.
Communicate – Putting people first: remember this is about children. Parents need to feel included as do your teachers. You need to plan how and what you want to divulge at every stage. One of the worst things you can do during a merger is to stop communicating. If you don’t take ownership of sharing the positive outcomes your changes will bring, how will anyone know about them? If you want your changes to be looked upon favourably by others, you need to keep people informed of what the changes are, and how they could be affected by them. Regular communications will help people feel included and involved and therefore invested in the merger. A lack of communication will leave people in the dark and lead them to share their subjective thoughts about not knowing what is going on.
Take part and engage – These days everyone thinks they are a journalist, with social media providing an immediate broadcast channel and actively listening audience. It only takes one disgruntled parent or teacher to spark a wave of discontentment. With changes affecting pupils and teachers directly, your merger will cause emotions to run high. Stakeholders will voice their opinions online and misinformation or a lack of understanding could spread quickly. These conversations will happen whether you take part or not. Instead of looking at online conversations as issues, consider them as opportunities to engage and influence. Your messages will be in the public domain for all to see (including the local press) with your responses are directed to those who have an active interest in your activities. This provides a good ROI in terms of time spent targeting those who need to hear your messages the most. Negative views could potentially be changed with engagement and information, leading to a better understanding. Positive views can be shared and championed.
Listen and feedback – Communication is a two-way street. It is vital to recognise and consider the opinions of your stakeholders. The merger of two academy trusts will create a cascade of changes which could leave people feeling unsettled and with many questions. Provide your stakeholders with the opportunity to feedback and feed into your merger process. If you provide a listening ear to the thoughts and views of your stakeholders, they are much more like to feel valued and invested in the merger.
Be open and transparent – In order for your communications to be well received, it is vital to be honest and open. A merger between academy trusts will affect a large number of children, teachers, parents and other stakeholders. Be mindful about what changes the merger will bring and how different people will be affected. Ensure that all your communications are clear, as ambiguity will create an environment of distrust. Is your merger really a merger or has it become a takeover? If things change or evolve during the merger process keep your stakeholders informed. Being open and transparent with your communications will demonstrate integrity and add value to your brand.
Respect the legacy – A merger of academy trusts brings together two different sets of visions and values. Whilst there is likely to be some common ground and overlap, there will also be differences. Ensure that your communications respect the legacy of each academy trust. Whilst your focus will be on promoting the new vision for the combined trusts, do not discredit what has come before.
Champion the benefits – What is the point of the merger between your academy trusts? What benefits will the merger bring? What new opportunities will be created? Celebrate the gains from economies of scale and the benefits of school-to-school collaboration and support. This is your opportunity to explain and promote your exciting new vision. Championing the benefits should be the key focus of your communications during the merger process.
Be timely and consistent – To keep your audience engaged you need a regular programme of communications. It’s no good giving out lots of information one day only to say nothing more for the next two months. Your stakeholders expect regular progress updates. A steady flow of information about what the changes are, and how your audience will be affected will help people to feel involved. Keep the tone of voice and language used in your messages consistent. A lack of consistency can lead to confusion and a lack of trust in what you’re saying.
Manage the process – A managed and considered approach to PR and communications will provide you with the opportunity to influence the opinions of others in a positive manner. You need to be proactive and dedicate time and budget if you want to have a successful campaign of communications and PR during your merger. Ensure that an expert takes ownership of the communications process and pushes your campaign forward. An experienced communications professional will tailor your messages to each channel to ensure your content is appropriate, relevant and easily understood. They will also ensure that your messages receive the best reach and reception. Remember it’s not just about what communications you put out. You also need to monitor and measure your progress and search out new opportunities to engage. Having the right team in place to manage this process will ensure that you’re driving the news agenda rather than reacting to it, and that your messages are effective and support your merger process.
Take a look at our other two blogs in this series on mergers: