“Be prepared and be honest.” – John Wooden
When unexpected or significant change befalls your firm, John Wooden’s words ring especially true. Your firm may have a succession, a change of ownership, a merger, an acquisition, an unfortunate illness or death, or an unexpected resignation or team lift-out. You may not know or be able to control what changes will occur, but you can be prepared with a plan of action for communications and action when change does occur. To minimize fall-out and survive the test of time, preparation and honesty are always the best policy.
Effective preparation begins with a well-defined communication plan that outlines the requirements for a change event. Next, pre-determine the team that will be involved in developing the communications plan, including: senior management, your public relations staff (if you have one), and client service, consultant relations, operations, compliance, marketing and sales professionals, and independent consultants. The initial list of participants should be as small as possible to control leakage or pre-announcement. Finally, you can customize your plan as to what will be needed for different scenarios, and each constituent type and distribution channel.
An important step in your communication plan is to build good relationships with the press. How the press perceives working with you makes a valuable difference when there are tough issues to report. Essential components of a successful communication plan also include:
1. Draft the internal verbal announcement – who, what, why, where, when.
If the change is about senior management departures, have the announcement come from the senior management professional(s) who are staying, regardless of the position of the person who is leaving. If the announcement is about ownership changes, have the current owner announce and pass the baton to the new owner.
Before the internal announcement, plan who will attend, exactly who will say what and for how long, where the meeting will be held, and whether you will open the session up for questions and answers. If you open the session to questions, decide in advance who will answer which questions. Be prepared with an outline of your plan of action to focus people on the future and what will need to be done, versus on the change.
2. Prepare to manage and minimize emotions, but allow time for them to be expressed.
Any time there is change, there are typically emotions involved. Your various audiences’ reactions can range from anger and grief to sarcasm to “I told you so!” Effective leaders must manage their own emotions, and be the voice of logic and reason. Be prepared to empathize, enlighten and elevate.
3. Develop a question and answer kit for employees.
This tool will be dynamic, because questions will arise that you least expect. Designate a team to organize the questions by category and to prepare drafts of succinct answers. Whenever possible, respond to a question and lead to a positive. Q: Are you selling because the business is in trouble? A: No. Our intent is twofold: to broaden equity ownership; and to align with a strategic distribution partner to support and diversify our future growth.
Distribute broadly. When your entire firm is armed with information to answer questions directly, concisely and non-defensively, they are naturally more confident and in command. “I have no idea” is not an answer you want circulated in the marketplace – no matter what the question.
4. Prepare a list of priorities for communications with clients, consultants and important prospects in advance.
Who will be called, in what order and by whom? To whom will you offer meetings? Who from your firm will participate in those meetings? What is the timeline for meetings with clients and consultants? What is the plan of action for written follow-up?
5. Draft talking points – both for phone calls where you connect with someone and for voicemails.
Keep the talking points just that. Talking points. Not a script. You need to give those who represent you enough information to be informative to their audiences, but not so much they sound as though they are reading a canned statement. Limit the voicemail message to 45 seconds and avoid going into specific details. Say you are calling to update them on an important development at your firm. Ask them to call you back, and let them know you will be sending a written announcement in the coming days.
6. Compose the external written announcement, follow-up emails and other written correspondence to send to your different constituents (clients, consultants, prospects).
Be factual and succinct. Customize the communications as appropriate for your different constituents. Send written follow-up to those you call (whether you connect or not), as well as to the broader list of constituents you do not call.
7. Provide a press release.
Agree who will prepare and distribute a press release and when. Be cognizant of the risks and the rewards. Compose and provide a press release that is succinct, honest and objective. Permitting others to release information to the press and keeping your own voice silent are seldom the best tactics to pursue. Initiating contact with your pre-established press contacts and providing them with facts establishes you as a “work-with” source. Do not provide extraneous information. Be aware that your firm will remain “in the news” until a more newsworthy event occurs. That can be days, weeks or even longer. Articles can easily come out on the change for months afterward. Be prepared.
8. Determine if a transition plan will be required, or whether the change will be immediate.
Be honest. Decide what is best for the circumstances and then execute appropriately.
9. Refresh your team’s biographical information for public distribution.
People will want to know more about your firm and team than before.
10. Provide transparency to clients, consultants and prospects who request information.
Show people a summary of your transition plan if you have it. Discuss your immediate action steps (preliminary decisions on consolidation, expansion). If appropriate, let people know to expect further announcements in the coming weeks and what topics you will likely address.
11. Prepare brief presentations with as much factual data as you have available for meetings with your different markets.
Institutional, consultant, retail and sub-advisory channels will all require different levels of information. Prepare key messages and proof points to address what you believe those markets will require. Have templates ready to go.
By being well prepared, proactive and honest in communicating change, you build trust with clients and the market. Never let your clients be surprised by learning about a significant change in the press or through the grapevine. While change is frequently a challenging event, the opportunity to communicate with your clients may reap benefits in deepening those relationships. Maximize the opportunity to communicate positive developments at your firm, and to dialogue with clients to learn more about any challenges at their own company and ways you might be able to help. Make lemonade out of the lemons!
Charnley & Røstvold, Inc., a preeminent marketing consulting firm to asset management firms ranging in size from start-up firms to some of the world’s largest investment firms with over $1 trillion under management. Charnley & Røstvold helps clients with competitive positioning, marketing strategies, key messages, presentation refinements, communications and sales training, consultant relations and client service programs.
Christine Røstvold, co-founder of Charnley & Røstvold, Inc., is a popular industry speaker and author. Christine was a founding board member of PAICR (Professional Association for Investment Communications Resources), and served on the Advisory Board for more than a decade.