Merging Lane

As a company grows through mergers or acquisitions, communicating a message—especially a cultural one—becomes increasingly difficult. Communication is often a challenge of both logistics and semantics.

That's what insurance giant Royal & SunAlliance faced after it acquired Orion Capital Corporation, creating a mega-firm. Top management knew they faced issues that could only be solved through a change of the very foundation of their business practices. After working for nearly a year to develop a new mission and set of values, it was time for a company-wide rollout of 30-person training units designed to get the entire firm thinking, working, and communicating the same way. It all began with one major event.

Getting on board

Many of the company's associates had survived several previous mergers and acquisitions. There was a pervasive attitude of "been there, done that, bought the T-shirt" whenever new management initiatives were mentioned. Management wanted to ensure that this new initiative would be embraced, not ignored. The solution was a multimedia two-hour presentation originating before 2,000 associates in Charlotte, North Carolina, and uplinked via satellite to 40 cities—and an additional 5,000 associates—across the country.

The Royal & SunAlliance team consisted of top management, communications professionals, and training specialists, among others. United Artists provided a nationwide network of satellite-ready movie theaters and the video conferencing technology. My company, Tribble Creative Group, was retained to provide content development, event management, and production.

An animated solution

The team's first task was to create the event format. In order to keep things interesting, we settled on a mix of live speeches, panels, and video production. We also decided on a special technology that would allow us to disarm the critics in the audience by acknowledging their skepticism at the outset.

With it, we created an animated character we named Dickens, which was projected onto the two large screens on stage (see sidebar). Dickens was cast as a curmudgeonly manager who had been around Royal & Sun Alliance for years and had seen all the new management initiatives he'd ever wanted to see. An actor backstage, connected to a computer through sensors, interacted with the senior management team as they presented the program to the audience. His constant interruptions and humorous interjections served to disarm the skeptics and break the ice quickly.

Metaphors for change

In addition to Dickens, we knew we needed to create the potential for inspiration. While the five values being promoted—truth, trust, teamwork, excellence, and adaptability—had depth and meaning, we needed to create a theme to help illustrate the new behaviors that management wanted to see. And, knowing that repetition is important for communication, we needed a metaphor to reinforce this theme.

The theme "From this Moment" communicated the concept that "from this moment, change will begin." The event began with a dramatic video production. Set to music with no narration, it featured Royal & SunAlliance associates illustrating behaviors of the new values while the words "From this Moment: Truth," and "From this Moment: Trust, " etc., panned across the screen. The metaphor that the team chose was the ringing of a bell, to signify a universal call to action. We featured a bell in various ways during the video presentations.

Several members of the top management team spoke throughout the program. At the end of the show, the management team joined the CEO on stage for a Q&A segment.

Ringing a bell

At the program's conclusion, as the CEO called his 7,000 associates to action, a video featured all the actors ringing their bells, interspersed with dramatic photographs of bells across the world. Then, the curtain was raised and the theater doors opened as 150 Royal & SunAlliance associates poured on stage and down the aisles, ringing their bells as a call to action. As guests departed, they each received a logoed bell for their desks to reinforce the message for months to come.

The associates received the program enthusiastically. Management agreed that creating this event prior to the system-wide training programs successfully communicated the message and inspired the audience, resulting in early buy-in of the new Royal & Sun Alliance vision and values initiative.

10 steps to success

Here are tips on how to do a successful communications rollout for a corporation, whether for a merger, acquisition, or other major initiative.

Get buy-in from the top.

1Senior management has to be committed to a company-wide rollout in order to make it successful. You can't slap it together without their stamp of approval. They must give the project the respect and time it deserves.

Assemble a team.

2 Put together a solid team of professionals from inside and outside your organization. Include human resources, communications, marketing, and top management professionals to be sure the message you craft is appropriate for all audiences. Get references on outside vendors and bring them into the process early.

Create a realistic timeline.

3 For major company-wide initiatives, time is of the essence. You'll need to work fast and be nimble, but at the same time, give the project the time it deserves. Don't set an artificial deadline for production if it might jeopardize the success of the meeting. You have only one chance to communicate your message effectively.

Value variety.

4 Whatever your program length, be innovative in its format. Use a variety of presentation techniques, including live presentations, panel discussions, Q&As, videos, special effects, and even live performances. No matter how important the message, a series of "talking heads" will bore your audience, causing them to shut down.

Don't scrimp on technology.

5 When it comes to the actual presentation, don't shave the budget too close. Make sure the sound system and video projection equipment are first-class. It would be better to eliminate the creation of an entire video segment than to scrimp on equipment costs—i.e., going with the lowest bid in lieu of experience or quality sound, lighting, and projection equipment. If you shop for the lowest price and end up with inexperienced people or lower quality projectors, or cut back on operators or rehearsal times to save money, you can jeopardize the event.

Don't ad lib.

6 Even if your management team is comfortable behind a podium, limit unscripted remarks as much as possible. You don't want any surprises, such as the technicians losing their place and missing a cue because your CEO has rambled off script.

Be honest with your audience.

7 If you suspect there will be skep- tics in the audience, acknowledge them. Be honest; tell them you know what they are thinking. For the Royal & SunAlliance event, we accomplished that in two ways: with Dickens, the curmudgeonly cyber manager, and the Q&A session that included some tough questions culled from associates.

Lighten up.

8Don't be afraid to use humor. Unless the subject of the meeting is layoffs or plant closings, there's no reason to keep things dry. Allow some humor to be written into the script. People tend to retain information better if it's presented in an entertaining manner.

Provide professional direction.

9Most people in top management have at least moderate communications skills, or they wouldn't have gotten to where they are. But no matter how well-scripted and comfortable people are in their speaking roles, you should provide a director for your meeting. Ideally, someone with speaker-training experience should be on hand during the scripting process and rehearsals to give the speakers consultation on their delivery style.

Practice, practice, practice.

10Coach your speakers to rehearse individually in front of the mirror during the weeks before the program. And set aside plenty of time (at least two hours of rehearsal for every one hour of show) for a full run-through with the presenters and the technicians. Have a technical run-through for video, PowerPoint, and lighting cues prior to the full one, so you don't waste the valuable time of your presenters.

Mary Tribble, CSEP, is president of Tribble Creative Group, an event marketing, management, and production firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Tribble Creative Group has helped hundreds of corporate clients fulfill their marketing and communication objectives through events, meetings, and conferences. Call (704) 376-1943 or visit the Web site at