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Communicating through change.

Many of us in the property management business are familiar with corporate change. We acquire new properties to manage, we open new buildings, and we reposition old ones.

In January 1990, my company merged with two other established firms. I was the executive on the new team given the responsibility of coordinating the selection of our new name and investing that name with meaning inside and outside the organization. We wanted to launch our new company in a public way by April 1, 1990.

However, we quickly recognized that launching a new company was not as simple as ordering new stationery and business cards. We decided that a communications consultant could help us steer the project to completion. This article is about that process, about the teamwork it required to meet our three-month deadline, and about some of the activities we undertook to give our new firm, Argon Group Real Estate Strategists, the best introduction possible in our market.


Our firm is based in Calgary, Alberta, the western Canadian city which hosted the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. The real estate environment is highly competitive. Our parent company decided to merge the operations of three of its subsidiaries in order to re-enter the marketplace as a larger, more full-service real estate management firm.

One company brought a reputation as a reliable source of real estate advice; another came with experience in asset management and in turning around troubled portfolios for investors. My company, the largest of the three, brought over 200 employees with experience in the entire spectrum of real estate management, from long-term enhancement strategy to the gritty details of day-to-day property administration.

On paper, the trio entered the decade as a company with a new and highly competitive approach to real estate investment. But, with no name, no visual identity, and hardly any time on our side, we had a considerable challenge ahead in order to capitalize on the momentum gained through the merger.

Hire communications help

Probably the best piece of advice we could give a property management executive facing the challenge of corporate change is to seek outside communications counsel.

According to the Academy of the Public Relations Society of America: "A successful relationship between client and public relations firm is based on these fundamentals: the best match of capabilities to needs; total agreement on objectives; constant accessibility; full information sharing; continuous interaction; regular program and progress reviews; and mutual trust and respect."

We were lucky. We already had established a good working relationship with a public relations and advertising firm. These professionals knew me, and they knew my company. Although they were not familiar with the other two parties in the merger, we had one of the most important elements going for us: good chemistry. I trusted they could quickly get up to speed.

Until the merger deal was signed, we were in no position to get started; but when the time came, we knew who we were going to call. That put us ahead because we would not have to invest time in a search.

Getting rolling

About January 15, we called our PR firm to a meeting and disclosed the challenge ahead. In the best of all possible worlds, we would have had four or five months at our disposal prior to the public launch, time for research and analysis before defining objectives and tactics.

However, we had the fresh research on which the merger had been based to share with our consultants in the initial meetings. This information was useful in the research and analysis phase of their planning process.

The research and analysis phase is essential in developing a communications program. We believed that doing a slipshod job would be foolish, even though we were all conscious of how little time we had. After all, you can't take a launch back. It is a company's first impression, and it has to be right. You can't say to your clients, "Whoops! We were just kidding!"

We were prepared to make sacrifices in other areas in order to get the professionalism we needed. Therefore, we didn't skimp on giving our agency the time they needed in this phase.

Spending quality time with professionals in the beginning is crucial. Let your agency contacts ask the questions they need to ask, and give them as much direction and feedback as you can. It pays off in the long run.

Agree on the plan

There is never too little time to be businesslike either! The firm left the first meeting promising to get back to us within a few days with an outline of a plan for communications, including the design of our logo, a budget estimate, and a time-line for the work ahead. Our firm knew what was going to be expected of us, how we would be kept informed, how the agency was to be compensated, and what billing policies (such as mark-up on suppliers) it had.

Within a week, we had a working communications plan complete with a task analysis for hundreds of public relations duties and details, all of which would be critical to the success of the launch. Through a series of meetings, we fine tuned the plan and divided it into three phases: company transition, launch, and post-launch.

Dividing the plan not only helped us see the long view but also focused our energies on the immediate tasks. The consultants had the experience to know what needed to be done, and their task analysis enabled us to identify details that we could undertake in-house, saving money and time.

During this research and analysis phase, we also worked to define our messages and audience. Once they were in place, we could go ahead and establish communication vehicles or tactics that would bring those messages to our audiences.

Special target audiences identified were the media, both general and trade; the financial and investment community; the property management community, including all those related to it such as sub-contractors and professional associations; current and future employees; and, of greatest importance, current and future clients.

Our plan outlined three primary objectives, which guided our selection of tactics to accomplish these objectives:

* To develop and design a new corporate identity, including name, logo stationery, signage, etc. (Stage One).

* To introduce the new identify to relevant internal and external audiences through special events, media relations, advertising, and collateral material such as specialty gifts, an introductory brochure, and a newsletter (Stage Two).

* To conduct ongoing communications to promote and solidify the new corporate identity (Stage Three).

Each tactic came with a list of details for implementation, and each list had to be meshed like cogs to bigger cogs in a wheel that drove the whole project forward. For example, we could not design a logo until we had selected a name and we could not order the gift until we had the artwork for the design. We could, however, book hotels for the special events and begin to write copy for printed materials.

In total, the communications planning process--the pre-planning on which so much of the subsequent activities were guided--took three weeks in the three-month time frame, but it was well worth the investment.

We approved the budgets in the $125,000 range, broken down by activity. Each person on the team knew exactly what role to play and what things needed to be accomplished by whom and by what date. We made the commitment to making fast decisions in order to keep the wheel turning.

If our first piece of advice is to call in professional communicators, our second is to approach the project with a communications plan in hand. Once we had that plan, we knew where we were going and how we were going to get there. The implementation part of the plan was actually a lot of fun.

What's in a name?

Our new company needed a name, a corporate positioning statement, and a visual identity. We started with a name concept and outlined it as best we could to our designers. They helped us to simplify our thinking, and we gave them freedom to make suggestions.

At first, we had 200 possibilities that they helped us to narrow down to a dozen. These names were subjected to a search with the federal Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs to ensure that the name we chose would, in fact, be within our rights to use. The design consultants put the names on showcards, and we focus-tested them among employees and clients to gauge response.

Focus-testing also played a key role in maintaining and building enthusiasm and employee morale. It's simple, really: if we want people to represent us and be a team, they should have a say in how our company looks, develops, and grows.

We facilitated this process by making this aspect of the launch our top priority. As a result, there was near unanimous agreement on the choice of the name and in the way it was to be presented in the logo.

That the Argon Group came to its name, its corporate positioning statement, its colors, and its logo within three weeks (and without spending a fortune) would be viewed with skepticism in many companies that have found the business of corporate identification an agony. But to us, it was the meaning behind the name that was priority more than the name itself.

With very little time to waste, our team--from the top down--left personal biases and preferences at the door and approached the task with a positive attitude. Empathetic consultants helped us make short work of what could well have been a slower and less satisfactory process.

To further encourage this positive attitude, we initiated an internal communications program to keep our employees abreast of changes in the company structure, corporate values, and departmental responsibilities. We did this face-to-face, supplementing the meetings with a one-page news sheet on our new corporate letterhead, as soon as it was available.

Launch elements

The enthusiasm for the change on the part of our employees and their willingness to adapt to it were essential to our success. For that reason, we felt that a special event for the employees, in advance of one to be held for our external audiences, would give us an opportunity to thank them and to motivate them to continue moving ahead with the new firm.

The employee reception was a festive Friday evening celebration on a Mardi Gras theme. Little party favors with an invitation to "Come blow your own horn!" set the tone. A large "jigsaw" framed the moment when three companies became one. A representative from each company placed a piece bearing his company logo into the frame. With a flourish, the frame was swung around to reveal the new logo. It was a very appropriate "ribbon cutting." Each employee also received a commemorative gift and a set of personalized business cards.

On Monday, a second special event was hosted for our external audiences. Guests at this elegant affair were invited with a champagne glass and an invitation to toast the entry of "a new generation of real estate strategists" into the marketplace.

We took the opportunity to reinforce the new firm's market position, while reassuring clients that our interest and loyalty to them remained as strong as ever. It was important that each guest gain a sense of continuity during the corporate change and come away feeling that our personal service had been enhanced and not diminished.

The food, the uniformed serving staff, the decorations, the music, and the commemorative gifts--every element of the party communicated "class."

The external communications also included media relations, advertising, and corporate communications. A press conference was held just prior to the elegant public launch, to which the media was invited. A press kit containing a news release, the introductory brochure, and the first issue of our external newsletter was distributed at the conference and to all media outlets that were unable to send a representative.

Unfortunately, our media relations program suffered somewhat in our decision to hold the news conference prior to the public event, rather than the employee event. This timing did not suit deadlines, and the resulting media attendance was low.

However, a series of announcement ads were developed and placed in local and national newspapers and trade journals on or around the time of the public launch. The advertising gave us complete control over the timing, the content, and the target external audiences that we wanted to reach with our news--a good investment, indeed.

Our company's new signs were installed at major locations on the day of the launch, and as quickly as possible in the remaining locations. We found this an important aspect of our visual identity program, particularly squeezed in our tight time-frame.

Our introductory brochure and the first issue of our newsletter were distributed to clients prior to and at the launch. Our personal interaction with all clients was also an important vehicle of communication. There is no substitute for that kind of contact.

What next?

The launch was a means to an end, not the end itself. The melding of our corporate cultures has really only just begun. Our communications plan's Stage Three recommended ongoing activities. Public relations cannot be a one-shot effort if the goal is to establish long-term gains in awareness, understanding, and support for a corporate change. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise.

To this end, we developed and produced a corporate identification manual to ensure that, wherever and whenever our logo was used, it was used to reinforce our identity in the market. The manual is an invaluable tool and is especially helpful in the area of signage.

Our communications continue, with each element aimed at keeping the new firm in the public eye. We already have followed up our first external newsletter with a second edition and now publish it quarterly. It has helped us reach out to our audiences on a regular basis and keep our name and all that stands behind it in the minds of our clients.

We also initiated a quarterly employee newsletter with many of the same objectives: "This is who we are...this is what we do...this is why we are successful."

No excuses not to communicate

In this article, we have advised that, when faced with a corporate change, you should get professional communications help. We have advised that you approach your corporate change with a detailed communication plan that outlines your audiences, your messages, and your objectives.

We have advised that you approve a plan that details the vehicles or tactics you are going to use to achieve your objectives, and how each will be implemented: by when, by whom, and at what cost?

We have advised you to keep communicating once you begin and to build on the investment you have made both in the corporate change itself and in your communication of it.

Our last piece of advice is to resist the temptation not to communicate in the face of too little time and too little money. Do the very best you can with the time you have at your disposal and with the budget you have available. We amazed ourselves at what we were able to accomplish together. When we look back on it, we know the exercise helped to build our new team.

[Vyetta Sunderland, CPM[R], is senior vice president of Regional Property and Asset Management in Calgary, Alberta. The firm is a member of The Regional Group of Companies, investment and corporate real estate consultants. She previously worked for 17 years with the company that became the Argon Group.

Ms. Sunderland is an immediate past president of BOMA Calgary, a director of the Real Estate Institute of Canada, and a member of the IREM faculty.]
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Association of Realtors
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:planning the launch of Argon Group Real Estate Strategists
Author:Sunderland, Vyetta
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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