Communicating a merger: how do you tell the story to your customers and colleagues?

12 January 2018

Alex Hunter has worked in communications for over 20 years and is Director of Corporate Affairs and Communications for Clarion Housing Group. Join Alex for his session on ‘Communications, engagement, transformation and mergers’ at The Comms Event this year.

There is little doubt that we, as communications and marketing professionals in housing, are working in a sector that faces unprecedented change and challenge in the future. The Comms Event 2018 provides an ideal opportunity to take a deep breath and consider where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going at a time when housing is under the spotlight as never before and customer expectations are changing.

The merger of Affinity Sutton Group and Circle Housing to create Clarion Housing Group placed us at the heart of the changes the sector is seeing today. Delivering such a change, at such scale, provided a unique communications challenge.

Failure to bring our colleagues and our customers with us could have derailed the merger and the many benefits it brings for those people who rely on the services we offer.

Having worked in communications for over 20 years, much of which was spent in the arms of the Government, I have developed a deep suspicion of 'spin' – which I am sure I share with those attending the Comms Event, as well as my colleagues and our customers. Given this, the central plank of our merger communications – the largest change either organisation had ever been through – was honesty.

Our communications internally and among our stakeholders was deliberately unambiguous. We wanted people to understand the reasons for the merger and the benefits of bringing two organisations together at a scale the sector has never seen.

Honesty, of course, brings its own challenges. For example, being open with staff that our numbers would reduce is a hard message to give, particularly when you need their expertise and drive in delivering the very thing that might see them out of a job. We sought at all times to strike a pragmatic balance and to engage with people about their own futures as well as that of the business, allowing them to ask questions, raise concerns and providing them with factual answers. Engaging in an open and honest dialogue with our colleagues was a key driver to delivering effective internal communications.

For our customers, change brings with it a degree of anxiety, which is hardly surprising. In our communications we sought to highlight the best of what both organisations were doing to illustrate how much more effectively we could be working as one.

We used resident consultation and other communication tools to explain to our customers how we could drive our social purpose for them and their communities, while helping more people than ever before to access a home. We were pleased to see this recognised in much of the feedback we received on the merger process.

For Clarion and the communications team the delivery of the merger was the beginning of a process, not the end. We have many opportunities ahead of us –  from driving effective, modern communications that meets customers’ expectations using the latest methods, to enabling the integration of what is now a large group with some 4,000 colleagues.

I am looking forward to the Comms Event to learn more about the opportunities and challenges facing the sector, and to hear from colleagues elsewhere about how we address an increasingly demanding customer base whilst doing even more to fix a broken market.  

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