Lauren Parker, President + CEO, FrazierHeiby
Shake Shack. Potbelly. Kanye’s Yeezy brand. These are just some of the large corporations that faced criticism after receiving government funds from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The program was part of the federal CARES Act, which set out to help small businesses maintain payroll and other expenses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the program did offer relief to small businesses across the country, including my own, it’s been widely criticized for lack of oversight and accountability in doling out cash to large, publicly traded corporations. (Shake Shack and Potbelly have returned the money.)
Following demands for increased transparency, the U.S. Treasury Department has published a complete list of businesses that received loans of $150,000 or more. This has opened the door for media, customers, partners and other stakeholders to ask questions about how that money was spent.
If you lead communications for a large company that took advantage of the program, you can stop reading this article and pivot to others on crisis communications. If you’re a leader with a small business of integrity that received a PPP loan, now is the time to prepare for questions internal or external audiences may ask. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Remember honesty is the best policy. If your business did receive PPP money, don’t try to hide the fact. With the information now publicly available, you’re only creating a challenge for yourself if you try to dodge questions or act aloof.
Be human. These are scary times, especially for small business owners who feel the pressure to not only provide for themselves and their families, but the hard working people they employ. Demonstrate vulnerability and care for your employees by speaking about how the funds were allocated (payroll, healthcare, rent, etc.) — all in an effort to keep people on the job.
Don’t speculate about the future. While the hope is that this small business benefit allowed many to stay afloat, there’s no way to know what’s ahead. If you receive specific questions about whether or not there will be layoffs in the future, don’t speculate. Rather, let your key audiences know that you’re committed to doing the right thing for your employees and the business, and that you’ll keep the lines of communication open.
With 4.9 million forgivable loans worth a combined $521 billion across 5,500 lenders, the PPP data offers much for inquiring minds to examine. With the economy top of mind for everyone, avoid being caught off guard by unexpected questions and think through your messaging today.
About the Author: Lauren Parker is president + CEO of FrazierHeiby, a marketing and communications firm based in Columbus, Ohio. Lauren has more than a decade of experience counseling clients through crisis and reputation management, brand positioning, social media engagement, employee relations and digital communications strategy. You can find her on Twitter at @ImLaurenParker or connect by email at lauren@FHcommunicate.com.