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  • Writer's pictureTsitsi Mutendi

Communication Within and With-out the family business

The announcement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on 08 January 2020 left most people scrambling for explanations and many in shock of the supposed impact. The House of Sussex released the news via a scanned letter and a typed-out post on social media and through their official website. In short, all their official channels broke the news at the same time. The two royals themselves did not officially verbally communicate the message.

For verification, most people scanned the other official platforms of the royal family to see an acknowledgment of the statement, but none has been forthcoming, although the Sussex statement states clearly that they were working with family members to handle their announcer transition.

What has transpired after that has left royal watchers and the world at large a bit baffled. A day after the statement, the birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge was celebrated by the various official royal platforms; however, there was silence from the House of Sussex who chose to post only a brief comment in a picture post on Instagram of the Duchess of Cambridge. This further fueling speculations on the relations between the house of Sussex and the family at large.

The British Royal Family is possibly one of the most well-known family businesses in the world, which has depth in tradition as well as history. After many years of successful transition from generation to generation, they may be the oldest family business in the works as we know it.

Similarly so, they are a prime example when it comes to family business issues and how to handle them as much as how not to handle them. In this particular case, let's explore communication within the family and the family business. From my narration above, you can see clearly that "How" a family business communicates is as important as what it communicates.

In a business as intricate as the Royal family, it's clear that there are channels of communication set out in the family. However, when you have a vast staff network and much public interest in the family and business, this can become a hornet's nest of complexities.

As family members, we would assume that the whole family was aware of the transition plans of the House of Sussex and that in this world of technology that the younger generation may have brought it up via a personal Whatsapp Chat or a Family group chat. However, we are not privy to the methods or culture of communication in this particular business to be sure.

Similarly so, the conversation may have still have been a private one between the couple yet to be announced, and they were planning to table it at the next family talk. However, living in a house filled with staff, a member of staff may have overheard the discussion or seen written documents, and this information somehow then found its way into the hands of media. And as we all well know, this particular family business is big news. So to prevent the media and the press from creating their own version of the truth, the Sussexes decided to act first and act fast.

Whatever happened in the days preceding the announcement, what is very clear is that communication became the center of this storm. And similarly, so many issues that occurred before the announcement were critical to the unraveling communication situation.

Communication is vital in ALL relationships, especially so in family businesses, moreso those as complex as the British Royal Family. The family tree being a large one, there are specific ways of delivering news that affects the operations of business to individual members of the family. Regardless of culture and geographic location, it's an unwritten rule that the elders should be told first. And in each culture, we have a way of delivering any news. But unfortunately, technology has made communication a complicated issue where we must be careful how we share news. Social media and the various chat apps have made news travel at a click globally.

Family businesses must be prepared for the pressures that go with communication in the technology age. The four types of communication that should be very clear are:

  1. Communication between each other as family members

  2. Communication between the family and the business, especially the employees that work for the business

  3. Communication between the family and the business stakeholders

  4. Communication between the family and the public.

This is critical because

  1. All members of the family feel as if they are part of the business, and if they receive news of any significant activities that are happening through a public forum like the internet, feelings are going to get hurt. The family members are going to feel as if they were snubbed or not included in important family issues that affect them.

  2. Senior family members do not always appreciate hearing important news via informal channels.

  3. Social media and online media by nature is uncontrollable, and information can quickly be sensationalized into misinformation by mere speculation. In the case of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, they did control their own narrative by releasing the news through their own channels. However, the enormous gaping silence from the family business as a whole has now opened their communication to speculation.

  4. There should always be consensus within the family business about releasing information, including when and how information should be released. This unified voice strategy gives shareholders a sense of security in that the family is acting as a whole, and there is no speculation about conflict or any significant decisions being decisions that cause a break in the family business, or it's operations.

  5. When dealing with speculation from the public or various stakeholders or family members, family businesses should be very clear in their communication and try as much as possible not to leave their communication open for ambiguity or misinterpretation. Equally so, family businesses must be frank about requiring privacy when dealing with stressful situations. Family issues may influence the business operations in certain circumstances. In these cases, family businesses may want to engage the right advisory services from qualified advisory practitioners to assist in resolving the issues at hand and issues that may affect the future of the business continuity.

  6. To protect family businesses, Confidential information must have appropriate channels which should be respected by all members. It is sometimes unavoidable, and confidential information does leak and get into the wrong hands. Family must, therefore, be aware that the stability of the family or lack thereof is intertwined with their business. Stakeholders and the public may feel threatened if members of the family are involved in untoward moral behavior or act in ways that are considered to be illegal or unethical. In many ways, the bigger or older the organization, the more people feel they have an invested stake in its rise or fall. Therefore the family must also educate internal business stakeholders of the value of communication for the family and the business. You cannot always avoid those individuals who believe they can gain financial or other perceived value by betraying the family's trust, but the family can, however, nurture an environment of trust and integrity in business employees to try to avoid such incidences. To further this point, the family must always work with professional advisors with expertise in crisis management and business continuity to formulate and put in place possible action plans that may be necessary if and when the family business faces such situations.

Weathering the storm is the key to situations such as the current storm facing the British Royal Family. Holding together as a family shows solidarity and gives all stakeholders a sense of security that their concerns are being dealt with. In this case, the stakeholders are the British populace and those of the commonwealth who may feel that their monarchy is at threat. However, when we look past the panic, I think the family could be handling this situation better by standing in solidarity. A simple statement similar to:

"We acknowledge the statement released by the Royal house of Sussex and are currently in discussions with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as the family navigates into the new decade; we will communicate via official channels the necessary information as we go forward into 2020. We would appreciate your support during this critical time."

Although inconclusive, a joint statement by relevant parties is one that would bring security and comfort to the business stakeholders, it may not have been the way the family has handled such issues in the past, but as we face a new decade, with technology moving at breakneck speed, the British Royals and global family businesses are going to find themselves faced with new challenges and Next Generations with different needs and wants. This all has to be tackled and handled with the utmost care. What is critical to remember is that in all relationships, Communication is Key. And even technology can be the distortion that disturbs dialogue.

Like many other people, I watch with the British Royal family situation with interest as to how the family will weather this storm. And as a stakeholder, I hope that they handle it in a way that all parties are heard.

As a family business owner, I would be interested to know how you are working on creating better lines of communication both in your business and in your family as well as between the business and family. What are the biggest obstacles you feel you have been facing?

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