The Telephone Game and Mergers

Growing up you probably played telephone – maybe you were the one who started the game where you whisper a message to a friend, which is then passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. Errors always accumulate from one person to the next, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly, and often amusingly, from the one uttered by the first. Some players may even deliberately alter the message to guarantee what’s communicated in the end is not the same as the one originally conceived.

Guess what – this game is played every day in banks looking to merge with other institutions. Only in this situation it’s not a game, and the end message or result is not amusing but potentially toxic.

Think about it – there are always people in an organization who process information out loud or thrive on gossip and enjoy thinking the worst of a situation. So what starts out as “I wonder if I’ll keep my job” ends up “I heard we’ll all lose our jobs” as the final message. Think about how this misconstrued message impacts employee performance and interactions with customers. Ultimately the wrong message impacts the value of your institution if staff and customers leave, stop referring prospects or lose trust.

Don’t let this happen in your organization. Build and execute a communication plan with the following in mind:

  1. When it’s time to go public, define your stakeholders and prioritize when they should hear your news. Clearly employees need to hear before customers and the market. Customers should also hear the news from you and not read about it in the paper – they need to know that you really do value their relationship!
  2. Most people can only remember 3 to 4 key messages so boil down your story to the 3 or so critical points you want your stakeholders to remember and use them consistently with all stakeholders and in all communications.
  3. Prepare your employees for the numerous questions that will come their way from other employees, their families, friends, and the people they will see in their community who know where they work. Give them, in writing, an FAQ so they have something to refer back to with confidence.
  4. Make sure you are ready for a call from a reporter and your employees know who to direct the media calls to. And if it’s not you, make sure you have tapped the appropriate resource who can execute the key messages and strategy you have prepared.
  5. Don’t stop with one communication – keep employees updated even if it’s to say nothing has changed. In the absence of information people will speculate – which can turn into a new game of telephone.

Ultimately sharing this information builds trust which will help keep your critical employees from leaving and your customers from shopping for a new place to bank. Don’t let the telephone game and rumor mill destroy the value of what you’re buying or selling. There’s just too much at stake.

So many of you have been through a merger or two – what positive and negative communications do you remember?

If you need help thinking through or executing your communications plan, please contact me at 303-795-3539 or

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