best communications practices

“Chaos is Our Brand”—Takeaways from an Interview with Katy Herr, CEO of Audacia Strategies

Friend of Audacia Strategies and CEO of Quantive, Dan Doran, interviewed Katy about the advantages of running an “out-of-house” communications firm, best communications practices during times of transition, investor relations, M&A strategy, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, and much more.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways and highlights from their in-depth conversation.

1. Don’t Wait to Create a Communications Strategy

Organizations most often look for experts in investor relations and strategic communications during big transitions. For example, a government contractor might decide to take operations in a commercial direction or a firm may contemplate a game-changing merger or acquisition. Whether or not your organization ultimately decides to bring in a firm like Audacia Strategies to help during such a transition, the most important thing you can do is start strategizing early.

Many of our clients contact us when they’re facing one of two situations: times of crisis or times of transformation—hence our unofficial tagline: “chaos is our brand.” This makes a lot of sense, but too often what we find is that if an organization hesitates to develop best communications practices and a communications strategy early enough, things can go off the rails quickly.

Say your board is about to fire your CEO, when someone leaks the news on social media and all hell breaks loose. What do you do now? Dealing with this kind of challenge is never fun, but it is much easier if you have a strategy ready to implement. If you have a plan, you can stabilize the situation quickly and move past the crisis.

So, why look to an outside “hired gun” to help develop a best practice communications strategy?

Here are a few of the benefits of using an outside communications firm like Audacia:

  • An outside set of eyes gives you transaction experience, critical perspective, and unbiased advice when communicating your message to the outside world.
  • An outside firm is in a good position to place your organization in a broader context (i.e., the competitive set, the market, and your financial stakeholders), while you focus on running day-to-day internal operations.
  • An outside firm isn’t influenced by the “groupthink” or silo-ed communications that can be an obstacle to projecting the strongest public image.

2. Think About Who Your Stakeholders Are

Part and parcel of creating a winning communications strategy is thinking about who your stakeholders really are. Whatever you do, don’t skimp on the stakeholder analysis. Remember that at its core communications is about storytelling. And just as you wouldn’t tell the same story in the same way to your 4-year-old nephew as you would to your 85-year-old grandmother, you wouldn’t tell the story of your company in the same way to different types of stakeholders.

Depending on whether you are a publicly or privately held company, stakeholders could include any or all of the following sets:

  • Employees
  • Financial stakeholders:
    • Public debt holders and ratings agencies
    • Private equity companies and banks
  • Community partners
  • Business partners (non-financial)
  • Strategic partners
  • Customers

3. Understand the Difference Between Marketing and Communications

It’s also important to realize that even if you have an internal marketing department or marketing agency responsible for communicating your message to customers, you may still benefit from enlisting a corporate communications or investor relations firm to help communicate with other stakeholders. We see both marketing and communications as valuable tools for building relationships.

Whereas marketing primarily focuses on telling the story of how your product or service will help your target customers, strategic communications partners can knit together the entirety of the business story to give investors and other stakeholders a comprehensive picture. As experts, we provide you a strategy leveraging communications best practices honed over many transactions, crises, and change events.

We look at how individual aspects of the business including operations, business development, human relations plans, contracts, real estate holdings, etc. fit together to create a holistic picture of value and determine how to communicate that value to each stakeholder segment.

In addition, while many firms have annual strategic planning sessions, often leaders and employees are too busy putting out fires day-to-day to think much about the broader picture. By opening this conversation, we give firms the space to look at the competitive space and customer environment, for instance, and ask big questions about how their market might respond to their actions, how resources should be optimally redirected, and how to keep investors engaged through the transition.

4. Gain Fundamental Communications Building Blocks Regardless of Revenue

At Audacia Strategies, our team has worked to develop best communications practices for companies with billions in revenues and an established shareholder cohort and companies that are pre-revenue looking for their first round of funding. While the scale and scope are different, the communications needs of large and small firms are remarkably similar.

There are some “blocking and tackling” basics that hold when it comes to analysis, building customer relationships, and considering how to communicate your value to the marketplace. These are fundamental whether you’re pitching friends and family or venture capital firms.

Fundamental communications questions to ask:

  • How do we want to talk about this new capability?
  • How do we demonstrate knowledge, understanding, and awareness of the market we’re going into?
  • Are there legal, financial, or cultural requirements that we should keep in mind?

5. M&A Tips and Tricks

When it comes to M&A (mergers and acquisitions), Audacia Strategies can support teams in many different capacities. We work with corporate development teams, in-house financial teams, lawyers, and investment bankers helping them think through the market and storytelling from an M&A perspective. For publicly traded firms, given the disclosure requirements, if you can tell the right story from the beginning, the whole process will be easier.

For example, when murmurs of Amazon working on a deal to acquire Whole Foods first hit the news, a lot of experts were skeptical. Whole Foods was struggling against some PR snafus and people wondered what Amazon really knew about how to manage a grocery store.

But look at what happened? As soon as Amazon acquired Whole Foods for $13.5 billion, Amazon’s market cap went up $14.5 billion. Essentially, the market paid Amazon to acquire Whole Foods. (If you’re curious to read more about Amazon, check out The Everything Store.) So, it’s interesting to see how the market will view M&A. It’s about risk, the ability to manage the risk, and telling the story of how this acquisition fits into your broader business strategy and culture.

Finally, we’ll leave you with some pitfalls and opportunities to consider when it comes to communications during a merger or acquisition:

M&A Pitfalls:

  • Companies that overpay: We have another blog post dedicated to this topic. Suffice to say, if you overpay for an acquisition, it can create credibility issues with your investors, your Board of Directors, your employees…the list goes on. Negotiations can get emotional quickly but consider that the business strategy will have to support the valuation.
  • Cultural fit failure: We’ve seen it happen: a small start-up firm develops an amazing technology and gets bought by a huge firm looking to prove it’s innovative and “hip.” Then, within a year, all the original start up employees are gone. Avoid this kind of cultural disconnect by having an air-tight integration strategy from the beginning. Make sure you are walking your walk, so you can deliver on what you’re promising.

M&A Opportunities:

  • Integration is key: The best M&A success stories are those where the merging leadership teams think about integration all the way along. When companies have a successful communications strategy that includes communicating the big vision well for both internal and external audiences, the proof is in the stakeholders’ response.
  • Customers see opportunities: Ideally, when two companies merge, customers say “this is exactly what I needed.” Rather than seeking out two solutions, for example, the customer gets one-stop-shopping from the new hybrid. It’s your job to help communicate this feeling across your stakeholder groups.
  • Employees see opportunities: And if you can also pull off a merger where employees in both companies see the transformation as good for their own careers, you’ve developed a winning communications strategy. Often employees of the smaller firm may feel anxious about being acquired. But if you can honestly demonstrate opportunities for career mobility, earnings potential, and other benefits of working for a larger company, it will go a long way toward easing transition tensions.

The above is only a sampling of the insights and best communications practices gained from Dan and Katy’s conversation. To watch and listen to the 30-minute interview in its entirety, hop over to GoQuantive.com.

Catch the whole episode here:

For more information about how Audacia Strategies can help you own your message through big bold business changes, check out our one-page business overview. And if you’re new to the Audacia Strategies world, welcome! Please contact us to set up a discovery session so we can start strategizing about your best communications practices now.

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