Reporters Are Pushing to Reveal CARES Act Beneficiaries. Is Your Firm Prepared for Tough Questions?
As law firms continue to announce restructuring, furloughs and layoffs in response to the economic emergency caused by the coronavirus, CMOs and marketing directors of small to midsize firms are quickly realizing they may have to contend with a corresponding PR crisis: their firms’ financials are under increased media scrutiny.
That’s because reporters across the legal and mainstream media are pushing the Small Business Administration and Treasury Department to make public the names of companies that accepted assistance through the various programs created through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, including the Payroll Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans.
We all saw the stories back in March of billion-dollar-plus companies whose bailouts depleted the PPP fund within days, only to be forced, sheepishly, to return the money after the public outcry. Obviously, midmarket firms are far smaller than those companies in both staff and revenue, but seeing so many powerful corporations take advantage of government support that was intended to help the little guy has made the public skeptical and even hostile toward any business larger than the corner hardware store who received government help.
Add to this inhospitable climate the lack of clear guidance for borrowers and grant recipients on how the money can be used, and all law firms who participated, even those working in good faith to stay well within the bounds of eligibility requirements, could face damage to their reputations. This is particularly true for law firms that predominantly serve small business clients. How will those clients respond if they learn their lawyers received the funding when they themselves struggled to secure it to protect their own business?
One thing we know for sure: this information eventually will be made public, whether the government releases it or it is leaked to reporters at the Washington Post or ALM. Therefore it is critical for CMOs and marketing directors to create a plan for how they will respond if their firm’s name is likely to show up on the list.
Anytime negative media coverage hits, firms have a few options:
- Say nothing. Hope for the best. Maybe your firm will show up so far down the list that no one will notice?
- Wait for the information to become public and then issue a statement confirming the barest set of facts.
- Confirm the facts and make a spokesperson available for interviews.
- Proactively disclose your participation in CARES Act programs, explaining why you did so, focusing on the jobs you’re protecting and describing your firm’s plans for weathering the coming months.
While many firms are banking on option #1 and hoping to benefit from chaotic news cycles and short attention spans, there is a risk that they could be underestimating the blowback they may face. If you remain silent while reporters write stories about your firm, your clients and prospects will tend to fill the information vacuum with their own speculation.
The smarter play is to deploy some combination of the other three options, and what that plan looks like will depend on strategic coordination with firm leadership and your answers to a few key questions, such as:
How will your most important clients react to the news that your firm received CARES Act support? Some clients will be relieved to know their law firm is on solid ground and can continue to provide uninterrupted service. Others might question the firm’s underlying financials or, as mentioned above, react with resentment that a business with revenue in the nine figures is displacing a small business. Predicting key clients’ responses to the news will allow you to create a media strategy that defuses criticism and shapes a more positive narrative about why the firm accepted the government support. Think about all the messages you’ve sent over the years about who you are and what you value as a firm. If leadership’s decision-making here was consistent with those messages and values, you’re in good shape.
Has your firm eliminated jobs, and does it plan to? One of the most important and well publicized terms of the PPP is that, in order for the loans to be forgivable, 75% of the funding must be used to cover payroll. This is intended to protect as many jobs as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean that moving ahead with job eliminations violates the terms of the loan, which can be repaid, in full or in part, at a 1% interest rate. But taking PPP funds and cutting jobs will raise eyebrows. Timing here is key. Did your firm lay people off and then take the funding? Could that be perceived as funneling the benefits to members of the firm who already receive the highest compensation? These are the kinds of questions reporters will be asking; leaders need to be prepared to answer them.
Has your managing partner and other members of the c-suite agreed to sacrifice some of their own compensation? If your firm decides to take the most proactive course and disclose its status, it’s crucial to use that opportunity to tell the most compelling story of why you did so. Of course, every managing partner has sent out a reassuring email to the firm in the past few weeks that says some version of “We’re all in this together,” but this message is a lot more meaningful when leadership can point to actual sacrifices they’ve made to try to save people’s jobs.
One positive development around the CARES Act programs is that now, some weeks after the disastrous rollout and the better-managed second round of PPP loans, businesses are no longer in competition with each other to get needed support. The sense that this is a zero-sum game has subsided, and that’s good news for midsize law firms that may need to disclose their participation. Still, marketers must think carefully about how to engage with the media on this sensitive and still-evolving issue. Don’t wait until a reporter calls to decide what you’re going to say.