Don’t Expect Audiences To Decode Your News

Companies get bought and sold every day. Sometimes, they actually merge.

But you wouldn’t know it by much of their communications language. It seems nobody wants to admit that they’re being bought or sold anymore. This is especially challenging in health care, where nonprofits are involved. But in the for-profit world, when someone is buying someone, they often want to call it a “merger.” For some reason, they think it seems easier to swallow.

But in an actual merger, they want to call it anything but that, lest anyone anyone understand what’s planned. Once client insisted on calling their merger an “affiliation.” Nobody has any idea what that means. Another refused to call it a merger because legally it was something called a “member substitution” (I still don’t know what that means).

All of this gets rationalized by lawyers, executives and others because they’re afraid of scaring audiences with the facts. They think softer is somehow better. But, in reality, truth is what’s best. Start with the truth and take it from there.

Case in point: this press release put out recently by two health care systems that are entering into something they’re calling a “joint venture.” Just take a quick moment away from our site and read it for yourself. What conclusion do you reach?

After I read it twice moments after it came out, it sounded to me like one system was taking the other’s financially distressed hospitals off its hands. I mean, they’re going to report to the acquiring (Did I say that word? I’m sorry) system’s CEO and be branded with that system’s name, after all. Either way, they are asking their audiences to decode their announcement.

They say legal considerations won’t allow them to spell it out more clearly. But there are consequences for that. For one, there are articles like this one in Bridge Michigan, where a reporter, analyst and people like me are providing educated guesses about what’s happening. If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you.

Worse than that, press releases and announcement about M&A situations often resonate on the inside than they do on the outside. In a tight labor market, which is contributing to poor financials across the industry and a war for skilled employees, the workforce at the affected hospitals must be concerned. I’ve heard executives say “If we tell them what’s happening, then they might leave.” But what I’ve seen in real life is that when employees are in the dark and don’t know who they’ll be working for in a year, they will leave, given the opportunity.

Of course, legal considerations are significant and nobody, especially communicators, want deals to blow up because of carelessness or recklessness. But a lack of understanding of attention and consequences by key audiences can also threaten deals, which is why communication must be a top priority.

You can’t expect your audiences to have decoder rings. It’s imperative to help them understand from the very beginning. Tell them what you want to happen and why. They’ll be much more likely to support it that way.