Why strategic communication and public relations should be at the heart of merger and ABR planning

By Ben Verinder (Chalkstream Communications) and Fiona Carthy (Carthy Communications)

Join our webinar at 2pm on Thursday 7th July  where we will be providing best practice guidance on strategic communication through merger and ABR. Click here to register.

Experience and guidance are clear – if colleges focus on the process rather than the people in their plans for partnerships or mergers, there is a significant risk they will fail or at best, make an already difficult process more fraught. Successful change requires the support and consent of others and that means ­­­meaningful consultation and professional, two-way communication.

Questions such as ‘what is our purpose?’ and ‘what are our long term aims?’ have communication at their heart and are reliant on consent and support. This can only be gained through healthy relationships and trust which are built on clear, consistent and open communication.

Sadly, poorly managed communication and fragmented messaging is all too common in the world of merger, and this risks seriously undermining the success of the proposals and damaging existing reputations and relationships along the way.

Recent examples include colleges that have brought private partnership discussions prematurely into the public eye before agreements have been met, and merging institutions issuing contradictory public statements, each putting delicate negotiations in peril.

In Scotland we can see the legacy of mergers that failed to achieve the consent of vital stakeholders in the emergence of unprecedented levels of industrial action and discontent.

Analysis of over 135 post-incorporation mergers in England reveals that success requires high-quality leadership at the planning and decision-making stage of merger, which in turn requires absolute clarity on the purpose of the change, and as stated by BIS ‘an ability to reinforce the purpose constantly across all internal and external communications’.

Yet we see colleges treating communication as an after-thought or insufficiently important to require professional attention, manifested as shallow consultation about a narrow range of options or broadcast messaging once a decision has been made.

There needs to be a clear educational and economic case for a partnership or merger proposal (whether that be to merge or remain independent), one that has developed from a realistic assessment of local social and economic need and through genuine consultation with all key stakeholders internal and external alike.

A clear mission needs to be established, particularly when there are conflicting perspectives from each organisation. Internal dialogue needs to take place in private and a clear public position agreed. This is where strategic public relations comes into its own, helping to reconcile the differing agendas and manage internal and external expectations. It helps a new or emerging board or leadership team sift through the noise of misinformation and speculation, itself a symptom of nervousness, to draw a clear conclusion based on the intelligence that matters.

It is also critical to build an understanding of the market position and the reputation of all colleges in the proposal, to start developing a future positioning strategy and that can only be genuinely assessed through impartial research with target audiences.

This assessment of reputation is also useful for area based review submissions, where colleges are seeking to establish a stand-alone position. What is the strength of your brand and reputation? How much brand awareness is there in the community – what will that look like post-merger? As outlined in the Furthering Reputations report in 2009: “Reputation is the product of cumulative activity and evaluation and once earned it has a resilient quality. This is why a good reputation is technically an asset”. How much assessment of the value of reputation is going into discussions and what is this based on? The colleges’ own perceptions or those of the community it serves?

Corporate reputation is closely aligned to the quality of its staff and their commitment to and engagement with the organisation. As most mergers will rely on their middle managers to pave the way – smoothing the clash of systems, processes and cultures into a new harmonised way of operating, open and consultative communication will pave the way to retaining the best people – whereas latent, directive communication could lead to an exodus of quality staff potentially fracturing quality, outputs and in turn community perception and reputation.

And finally to the issue of brand and market position – with a clear mission in place the merged entities can start to form the basis for a new value proposition to the market. This can be achieved either through the maintenance (and development) of existing brands or the introduction of a new brand or group entity.

There is huge opportunity to establish a new, stronger, revitalised market position through merger and the rejuvenation of brand position – but this is needs to be strategically managed and communicated not just through visual representation but more importantly through messaging, online and offline communication and internal values and behaviours.

Join our webinar at 2pm on Thursday 7th July  where we will be providing best practice guidance on strategic communication through merger and ABR. Click here to register.

Recommended reading

Association of Colleges. (April 2016) An analysis of college merger issues

Calvert, N. and Rosner, M. (2010) Understanding FE mergers and making them work, LSN

Learning and Skills Council and Centre for Education and Industry, University of Warwick. (2003) An Evaluation of Mergers in the Further Education Sector: 1996-2000

Payne, L. (2008) The Evidence Base on College Size and Mergers in the Further Education Sector, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Roberts, D. and Thompson L. (2009) Furthering Reputations, Knowledge Partnership

Stewart, G. (2003) College Mergers: Lessons to be learned from other sectors, Research in post-compulsory education, Volume 8, Number 3





When automated customer service goes very bad – a BT case study

I am usually wary of reputation management case studies borne out of a PR practitioners’ personal experience because they are (necessarily) anecdotal and, typically, anger masquerading as advice.

And this example, hypocritically, is no different – but independent of how livid I may be with the terrible service received from BT when moving house, it’s still a fine example of avoidable and expensive customer service failure.

On 15 May we moved six doors down the road, from a small cottage that we had outgrown. BT were due to reconnect the telephone line on 27 May but the deadline passed and the line was dead. There was, we were told after being diverted to a call centre somewhere in India, a fault.

A week later and the line is still dead. BT, it emerges, have been sending engineers to the wrong address (our old house) to find and fix faults that don’t exist. Quite why is a mystery as we have only ever registered the new address with them. So far I’ve spent over 130 minutes either on hold – regularly to be cut off – or talking to call centre representatives who assure me, by rote, that everything will be fine.

At 2pm yesterday, as another deadline passes for fixing the fault, I walk outside to see if I can spot a BT van. There it is, parked outside my old house.

“Are you Ben?” says the engineer as he steps down from behind the wheel.

“Yes. I was told you were coming between 8am and 1pm.”

“Don’t blame me. I was only booked at 1pm.”

I am reminded of the works of Franz Kafka.

“You’ve not been booked for Number 32 have you?” I ask.


“Well I live at number 20.”

There is nothing the engineer can do to help me, even though he is standing on my street, a few metres from my house. “We can only visit properties that we’ve been booked for.” He drives away. A sound, like the death rattle of a thousand small beetles, leaves my mouth.

This morning another engineer calls. His name is Pete and he is chirpy.

“We appear to have the wrong address for you. To book a visit by an engineer for the right address you need to call customer services.”

“Can you do it?”

“No, we’re not BT.”

“But you’re called BT Openreach.”

“We’re a BT company, but we’re not BT.”

“Do you have any idea how silly that sounds?”


What’s the lesson here (beyond ‘avoid BT’) for anyone involved in customer services and reputation management?

It could be the failure to integrate standard checks into sales. At no point in the three weeks prior to the deadline for transferring the line did BT check it for faults, and yet it took only a couple of minutes for a man in another continent to determine that the line was, indeed, faulty. One simple check and none of this would have happened.

It could be the failure to tailor the customer service journey to the customer. Instead, it is designed for the company’s benefit in order to maximise the efficiency of UK call centres. As a result, anyone wanting to talk to the faults department has to spend a long time on hold while someone in the north of England explains their predicament to someone in India. Calls are often cut off.

It could be the failure to integrate the domestic and international operation. Every time I speak to a UK operator I repeat my address as part of the security procedure. Yet the faults team spent a week sending engineers to the wrong address. They also made promises in relation to compensation and timings that their UK colleagues told me were simply not true.

It could be the muddling of brand between BT and Openreach that, through buck-passing, inevitably exacerbates customer services issues like mine.

It could be the operating costs that are far higher than the required investment to fix these issues. Engineers sent to the wrong addresses, fixing faults that don’t exist. Call centres tied up in hours of checks and explanations to one customer alone. Every one of the company’s representatives has tried their best at all points, but none of them is empowered to fix the problem.

No, what makes this a classic case study of failure to manage reputation is that, as all of this has played out, I have received the following emails and texts:

6436412/05/14 11:54 AM

Hello, BT here. Just to confirm you’ve set up online billing with BT. If you didn’t, please let us know at bt.com/letusknow.

6436422/05/14 8:50 AM

6436427/05/14 9:15 AM

BT here. Your broadband service is ready for you. If you’re expecting new kit, it should be with you by now, so just follow its user guide to set it up.  If it hasn’t arrived yet, find out where it is atbt.com/ordertracking. Thanks for choosing BT.

6436427/05/14 9:29 AM

BT here. Your phone service is ready for you. You can find out a phone’s number by calling 17070 from it. Thanks for choosing BT.

6436402/06/14 2:16 PM

Hello, BT here.

Sorry about your fault. Your phone should be back to normal now. If you set up Call Diversion, you can cancel it by dialling #21# from your landline. If you’ve got broadband, you might need to restart your hub and wait up to three days for your broadband speed to get back to normal. If you need any more help, go to bt.com/help

6436402/06/14 3:09 PM

Hello, BT here.

Sorry about your fault. Your phone should be back to normal now. If you set up Call Diversion, you can cancel it by dialling #21# from your landline. If you’ve got broadband, you might need to restart your hub and wait up to three days for your broadband speed to get back to normal. If you need any more help, go to bt.com/help

6436403/06/14 8:53 AM

Hello, BT here.

Sorry about your fault. Your phone should be back to normal now. If you set up Call Diversion, you can cancel it by dialling #21# from your landline. If you’ve got broadband, you might need to restart your hub and wait up to three days for your broadband speed to get back to normal. If you need any more help, go to bt.com/help

Of course, the phone service was never ready. And the fault never tested, let alone fixed. It will be another 48 hours before an engineer is sent to the right address.

Problems like mine are, apparently, common. Yet at no point has anyone thought to introduce a check which turns off automated emails when a fault is reported.

Reputation is often described as the difference between expectation and delivery. When customer service fails, automated communications that do not take this into account stretch the gulf between these even further. They gall, so smartly, because they are untrue. An automatic lie, if you will. And nothing corrodes trust quicker than an inability or failure to tell the truth.

Given the monopolistic position of BT Openreach I very much doubt any number of blog posts would change these behaviours. But if you work in customer services or reputation management and are now feeling smug (or chastened), then at least something came of this shambles.



Social media means… making mistakes

Last week, at a London conference for communications directors, I was asked to lead a small group discussing how organisations can best use social media to engage with what might loosely be termed ‘customers’.

As I posed the first question, a figure reclining on the couch declared:

“Don’t you think that, as this is a conversation, we should go round the group and introduce ourselves?”

Notwithstanding the fact that we were all wearing badges and sitting in close proximity to each other, she had a point, even if it was a rather jagged one. I should have helped break the ice. I made a mistake.


For a day commanded by conversations about social media it was striking how commonly delegates used that ‘m’ word. Communications heads from big brands in pharmacy, banking, retail and the third sector taking the podium and saying: “We messed up.” “We’d made a mistake.” “We tried this, it didn’t work, so we tried something else.”

I couldn’t help thinking back to another London communications conference dominated by digital, this time in 2006, a Don’t Panic ‘New PR’ event where speakers included Emily Bell, then Guardian director of digital content, the social media commentator and analyst Neville Hobson (by then already a prolific podcaster) and University of Sunderland’s Head of Journalism Chris Rushton.

I’ve tried to find a link to the original programme but can only find a Manchester version, posted by Chris’ then colleague Philip Young (who ran a fantastic study on ‘new media’ adoption in colleges for us when I worked at the Association of Colleges.)

That 2006 event felt like the meeting of a sect – a dark room, people speaking quietly, hands rising tentatively to ask questions, a confessional atmosphere. Some were experimenting – with podcasts to a handful of listeners, with (gasp) online newsrooms – often despite the organisation for whom they worked. The delegates might be blogging in a personal context, or monitoring what people were saying about their place of work on Facebook in their lunch hour. If they were making mistakes, they were doing so in secret.

Others like me were sat at the back, undergoing some form of conversion. And like a sect, it wasn’t entirely clear if we were heretical or simply an off-shoot of a larger body, at that point mostly spending its time taking journalists out to lunch.

So flash forward seven years, which is a very short amount of time in the grand scheme of things, and here we have global brands being searingly honest and public about the mistakes they had made online.

And while this feels a little odd, it is quite incredible that organisations haven’t made many more. Because here we have:

  • A medium which often strips out the helpful signals of visual and aural communications. Witness how well sarcasm works in social. Not.
  • Technologies that adapt or mutate with alarming regularity – whether they are Facebook algorithms or yet another image-sharing tool.
  • Monitoring that has always struggled to keep pace with the conversation, as if our ears were a little slower than our mouths.
  • A corresponding dearth of precedent – even now it often feels like an experiment.

Which is why communications professionals cling to eachother’s mistakes. Because in the era of social media, that’s often all we have to go on. If technologies and volumes of conversations and possibilities for talking to people are always changing, then we really are still experimenting and as such, more likely to stumble across what didn’t work for other people as what did.

It shouldn’t have taken a comms conference (or two) for me to work that out. The clue is in the name. If it’s social media then it’s destined to be defined by trial and error, just like any social interaction. We all make  social faux pas, some (like me) more regularly than others. We struggle to remember names. We talk too loudly, too softly. We forget to introduce people to each other.

The trick for communications practitioners is to persuade their organisations that the trial is worth the error. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Everybody thinks careers advice is a problem – but based on what evidence?

Recently I wrote about the varied groups lining up to give school-age careers advice (IAG) a ticking-off. But what evidence is available to help us understand the broader issue?

Here’s an overview:

In 2009 the Department for Children, Schools and Families (as it was then known) commissioned the University of Westminster to investigate ‘How young people formulate their views about the future’.

The research team talked to 610 pupils in 27 schools, focusing (but not exclusively) on the aspirations and decision-making process of year 7 pupils (11-year-olds) and the subject choice decisions of Year 9’s (13-year-olds). It is an excellent study and the springboard for quite a lot of research in this field – if you haven’t got a lot of time but you are interested in the subject, I’d recommend you read the contents page and the executive summary. 

Others worth looking through:

There are lots of others, including the recent TES/Barclays Lifeskills studyif you have particular favourites that cover something new in this area please do feel free link to them in the comments section.

Related (good) studies