Nov 14, 2022 | 3 minute read

Tags: college enrollment, college mergers, fundraising, higher education, strategic partnerships, transformational partnerships fund

Higher Education Mergers: The Communication Must-Haves

By Gail Benner

As those who work in higher education will tell you – it’s a different kind of place. A unique community with a consensus-driven culture that requires a different communications playbook. This is particularly true when exploring or seeking some kind of merger, acquisition, or partnership – a process that can be fraught with tradition, emotion, and rumor. Deciding where to start can be daunting. Before you embark on that journey, consider these marcomm must-haves for any institution of higher education poised to embark on this type of transaction:

  1. A communicator at the table: Involve your lead communicator early and often. Yes, they will need to sign a nondisclosure agreement, but they are very accustomed to working on the most sensitive issues in the academy. They can be your eyes on the ground and give counsel from public relations, employee communications, and news media perspectives. Their counsel might occasionally be at odds with legal counsel, finance, or other experts, but it is critical to go in with eyes wide open to the communications consequences of any action or approach. Having marketing and communications at the table can also forward your strategy in other ways – from improving a written proposal to managing high-tension conversations.
    1. A bank of holding statements: It’s faster to edit a statement than to create it from scratch. So if news breaks or rumors start to circulate your team must be prepared with what to say. Statements should be customized for your board, news media, alumni, and social media. Consider your criteria for “going public,” at any time during the process. It will always be a judgment call but thinking through the criteria in advance will save you precious time once the conversation starts. Don’t get left out. And be prepared for every possible outcome.
    2. A detailed cascade: M&A explorations are both a marathon and a sprint. While conversations or proposal processes can take months, the final decision can be made and executed very quickly. A drafted communications cascade should be at the ready, well before the ink is dry. Consider who your stakeholders are, what they need to know, when they need to know it, how they should be told, – and most importantly – in what order.
    3. A deeper bench: The M&A process requires full-time attention from at least one communicator. But at the same time, the daily show must go on. In addition, staffing transitions may accelerate for an institution once the word is out that it is “in play”. Start planning for how to take on the extensive workload by leveraging temporary positions and freelancers. Evaluate what you can stop doing and what you must continue, with a critical eye toward enrollment, philanthropy, and reputation.
    4. Humility: You won’t always get it right. Be upfront when you don’t.

Gail Benner is Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She worked on their recent merger with the University of the Sciences.

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