Managing Reputation of Independent Schools During Economic Uncertainty

August 26, 2020 | Ashley Flear

The communications landscape during the continuing COVID-19 crisis has been one where expectations for transparency are higher than ever before. It has been vital to regularly update and communicate with key audiences to keep them informed during this frequently evolving situation, or when sensitive decisions, such as accepting funds from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), were made.

To support this crucial effort, AKCG has provided ongoing communications counsel and support to independent schools across the nation. During these engagements, we closely examined the potential reputational risks and benefits of accepting these funds and provided guidance for how to effectively communicate this pivotal decision.

For many private and independent schools, COVID-19 created economic uncertainty, and the need for financial assistance quickly became very clear. With schools forced to shift to a virtual setting, many auxiliary programs that serve as a critical source of revenue—such as summer camps, day care, fundraising events and athletic programs—were put on hold indefinitely or cancelled entirely. Moreover, for some schools, the cost of delivering an education entirely online exponentially raised operational costs with the need to provide new professional development workshops to faculty, in addition to costs associated with making online learning accessible for all students.

While independent school leaders worked to identify a clear path forward, an opportunity for relief became available. As part of the CARES Act, the Paycheck Protection Program offered small businesses, including independent schools, a bit of a safeguard against increased financial uncertainty. A low-interest loan, the PPP funds also may be forgiven if an organization meets a series of criteria. Specifically, these funds were largely intended to be used to support payroll, preserving the jobs of devoted faculty and staff.

Accepting this form of government assistance had the potential to be a highly contentious decision. School leaders were sure to be under scrutiny if a small business owner within their own community was denied the same funds. Compounding the pressure, as these funds started to flow from the government, national news outlets began criticizing independent schools for accepting these funds while supported by endowments that reached millions—sometimes billions—of dollars.

By clearly communicating the role of tuition and endowment funds, many schools were able to quell widespread community questions and concerns. As misunderstandings of endowments became more pervasive, AKCG advised some clients to clearly communicate specifically how funds may be leveraged while briefly explaining their many legal restrictions.

The key to communicating the decision of accepting PPP funds is for schools to remain unequivocally grateful and unapologetic that they needed this funding for short-term relief. Importantly, the PPP funding has provided all independent schools with the opportunity to continue to provide a quality education, honor their missions and maintain their diverse cultures, all while protecting the health and safety of the school community.

To learn more about AKCG’s crisis preparedness practice, click here.