Coronavirus: How global agency groups are handling the outbreak

Global agency holding groups have suspended or heavily restricted travel to high-risk zones and some clients have begun asking for contract ‘pauses’ in response to the spread of the virus, PRWeek has learned.

Agency groups have restricted travel to high-risk areas (Photo: Getty Images)
Agency groups have restricted travel to high-risk areas (Photo: Getty Images)

Leading agencies in China, Hong Kong and Singapore are in lockdown, with staff being told to work from home as networks take measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus and keep employees safe.

In some cases, clients are reportedly hitting 'pause' on projects, pulling out of events and asking PR agencies for support with internal and external comms in response to the health crisis.

These measures are largely precautionary as the industry grapples with the impact of the outbreak on day-to- day business operations.

PRWeek approached major holding groups and other prominent agencies with operations in the Asia-Pacific region to better understand the impact COVID-19 is having.

In the UK, the only agencies that have been directly affected are Omnicom’s OMD and PHD, which closed their London offices last week after an employee who recently travelled through Singapore presented with flu-like symptoms. These offices have since reopened.

Several agency leaders told PRWeek they have rolled out group-wide contingency plans, heavily leaning on the advice of the World Health Organization and local authorities.

Here is a summary of how different groups are responding to the coronavirus outbreak:

WPP

The world’s largest marcoms holding group has put in place global precautionary measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The group began restricting travel at the end of January, and its current policy includes no international travel for internal meetings without the approval of the operating company’s chief executive. There are also restrictions on travel to high-risk areas and countries.

Interestingly, WPP is also restricting large-scale meetings, events and conferences.

In recent weeks, major events such as the World Mobile Congress, World Federation of Advertisers Global Marketer Week, Dubai Lynx and other industry events have been cancelled, while a French ban on public gatherings of 5,000 people or more, if it remains in place in June, could hit the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. (More on this below.)

The group is also advising staff on preventative steps, such as remote working arrangements and adequate hygiene measures.

Havas

Business travel across the group to and from high-risk exposure areas has been suspended.

At the time of writing, high-risk zones include Greater China, Iran, Singapore, South Korea, and the regions of Lombardy (Milan) and Veneto (Venice) in Italy.

Staff who have recently travelled through a high-risk area are being placed on a 14-day confinement period on their return.

If a Havas employee is likely to come in contact with anyone who has recently been to a high-risk zone, meetings must be conducted via video link or using online document-sharing.

Havas PR Global Collective chair James Wright told PRWeek he is aware the coronavirus is starting to have an impact on client work.

“I have heard from other agencies that some clients are asking for contract ‘pauses’. We have been asked to push certain things back, but not a pause yet – and in some instances, we have increased workloads and scope to help draft messaging or internal comms, or guidance for consumers and suppliers,” he said

“A number of our clients have pulled out of events and conferences, including SXSW. I think Cannes will likely be affected in a big way as well – a number are discussing their roles there.”

Agency groups are closely monitoring travel advice from health officials and local governments. Northern Italy is among the areas hit. (Photo: Getty Images)

Omnicom

Omnicom has also implemented travel restrictions across its global network. In an internal statement shared with PRWeek, Omnicom Media Group chief executive John Wren said that all business travel to or from China, Japan, Hong Kong, Iran, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan or Northern Italy is postponed until further notice.

Employees returning from these areas are asked not to return to their office for 14 days and seek medical treatment if required.

Publicis Groupe

Publicis has recommended prioritising conference calls, Skype meetings and video conferences where possible.

The group has implemented travel restrictions for employees to remain in place with regard to business travel to and from China, South Korea, Italy (Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia Romagna), Seattle, Washington State in the US, and any of the affected Category 1 countries/areas. All restrictions are decided at Publicis Groupe and regional leadership level. In offices, Publicis provides tissues and antibacterial gel in the bathrooms and kitchens.

A spokesperson said: “Publicis is continually monitoring the news and government guidance on the situation to ensure we are keeping everyone updated on the latest information. At present, there is no plan to close any of our workplaces.”

Huntsworth

Huntsworth, which yesterday revealed it has agreed to be acquired by a private equity firm, said it has not closed offices, but has expanded virtual working across the network and “slavishly” adheres to government guidelines.

"We give our local country heads complete discretion. They have a better sense of their staff and their clients and what their needs are,” Huntsworth chief executive Paul Taafe said.

“A lot of our offices are either part-time virtual or full-time virtual, depending on which office and which week you're talking about."

Taaffe said the coronavirus outbreak has not currently had much impact on its PR businesses – Grayling, Citigate and Red.

“We also have an events business, which obviously it is affecting, but not hugely,” he added.

"We continue to watch it. We're obviously concerned for our staff and for our clients, but we're not particularly concerned from a financial perspective at this stage. If this goes on for another six months, obviously it will have an impact."

The Huntsworth agency most likely to feel the effects of the COVID-19 is Citigate, which has a large Asian presence, with offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. Last year it opened in Tokyo.

"In Asia it's results season, and we have a lot of clients in Asia who will be doing results,” Taaffe explained. “How many of those roadshows will be taking place? How many will be more virtual? We have events in Asia – how many will take place?

"In Europe, we have some airlines in our portfolio in the PR business. They are obviously going to be affected – what happens to those? We continue to monitor it and March will be a real test.”

WE Communications

WE has rolled out the same guidelines it provides clients on coronavirus comms. This includes ensuring employees are informed in real-time about the risk, health-check measures that employees can take at work and at home, guidelines on travel and attending gatherings or major group events, and an updated remote working policy.

The agency has also reviewed its insurance and employment policies and created ‘workforce contingency plans’ for split teams and other ways of working that may be appropriate in the case of prolonged risk.

“We’ve found, and are counseling our clients, that it’s essential to have a clear business continuity plan with frequent, transparent communications at the centre of it,” WE Communications COO and president of international, Kass Sells, said.

“Since the initial news of the virus, we’ve been using the same guidelines we provide our clients – following a business continuity plan that is focused first and foremost on the wellbeing of our employees and key stakeholders.”

Hotwire

Hotwire has introduced a 14-day self-quarantine policy for staff who have been in contact with someone diagnosed with Coronavirus (COVID-19). Hotwire has also set up a global business continuity group, which helps its offices prepare for all eventualities.

  • Hotwire has an established flexible working policy and said its teams around the world are "very comfortable working remotely in the event an office is required to close". It also uses video conferecing technology so employees can keep in touch with each other and clients when it's not possible to meet in person.

Agencies and clients are encouraging remote working where possible to avoid the risk of contracting the coronavirus. (Photo: Getty Images)

Other agencies

The impact on clients was mentioned by PLMR and Beattie Communications; both agencies have also set up a coronavirus consulting divisions, along with Hanover.

PLMR told PRWeek it has put in place contingency plans across its offices in the event of a wider outbreak.

“We have been moving towards a more flexible working environment in recent months, and so are well-placed to work completely remotely if needed, ensuring our clients will be unaffected by any containment policies the Government might put in place,” head of health and social care Nathan Hollow said.

“We have, however, seen a surge in enquiries from clients wanting expert advice around the sensitivities of communicating about coronavirus, particularly in high-risk sectors such as education and healthcare. Elsewhere, clients involved in hosting large-scale events are having to rapidly rethink their programmes and marcomms activity.”

Hollow said that at the time of writing, none of the agency’s clients had closed a site, “although several have considered it due to recent trips to Category 2 countries, but all are monitoring the situation very carefully and are planning for significant business disruption or for the need to cancel planned events”.

He pointed out that the comms challenge for businesses is communicating clearly and effectively how their business is being affected while avoiding “an unnecessary and damaging sense of panic”. It’s a similar challenge to that facing the hard-hit travel, tourism and hospitality sectors.

“Clients in those sectors have also experienced a surge in media enquiries, reflecting the desire of local and national media to continue developing their stories on coronavirus,” Hollow added.

APCO Worldwide said it has been advising clients on scenario planning, internal and external communications, media relations and, most importantly, overall strategic counsel to define their response.

“Almost every aspect of our client’s business is being impacted by COVID-19, including meetings, travel, supply chain and a general concern for the wellbeing of their employees and communities,” the agency's executive director of crisis and issues, Eliot Hoff, said.

“Most companies will take at least a short-term financial hit, but ultimately their reputation will be based on how they responded as responsible organisations.

“We have been advising clients on scenario planning, internal communications, externals communications, media relations and most importantly, overall strategic counsel to define their response.

The coronavirus outbreak has provided new opportunities for PR agencies to guide clients on suitable internal and external communications strategies.

Although it is difficult to predict the full extent of how the broader economic disruption in Asia will affect clients and agency operations in the UK, agency groups are not taking any chances.

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