‘Almost every aspect of clients’ business is impacted’: Firms adapt for coronavirus

From virtual meetings to daily newsletters, agencies are meeting new client needs caused by COVID-19.

Pedestrians wear protective masks as a measure against coronavirus in Bangkok, where companies like Omnicom have postponed business travel. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Pedestrians wear protective masks as a measure against coronavirus in Bangkok, where companies like Omnicom have postponed business travel. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

As the number of global cases of coronavirus crosses the 100,000 threshold, agencies are implementing measures to keep employees safe. 

They are restricting travel, encouraging telecommuting and providing guidance for staff, including about respiratory and hand hygiene. Agencies are also brainstorming ways to minimize the disruption the virus is having on client work. They are conducting meetings via Skype and video conferencing and even turning planned public events into virtual gatherings. Firms are also counseling clients about the health crisis, particularly about internal communications, and creating educational resources. One firm has even hired an infectious disease expert to advise clients. 

While taking their cues from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. agencies are getting advice from outposts in Asia, particularly in China, where the virus has hit the hardest, for best practices about creating safe operations and maintaining a high level of client service. 

“Our teams in Asia have been heroically and deftly navigating the many emerging challenges from COVID-19 for some time, all the while continuing to deliver for our clients,” says Gail Heimann, president and CEO of Interpublic Group-owned Weber Shandwick. “Now we’re taking those key learnings and applying them across the network as the impact of the virus is felt in markets around the world.” 

Business travel restrictions

U.S. agencies are placing temporary bans on business travel to countries with COVID-19-related alerts. The CDC is advising against non-essential travel to China, South Korea, Iran and Italy with its most severe Level 3 warning, while Japan and Hong Kong have Level 2 and 1 alerts, respectively. 

Allison+Partners “currently has a mortarium to countries or regions identified as Level 2 or Level 3 by the CDC,” says Barbara Laidlaw, MD for global reputation risk and public affairs. 

“In an abundance of caution, travel to other locations may be permitted but only under certain circumstances,” she adds. “No employee, under any circumstances, will be required to travel to a destination if they feel that it could jeopardize their personal health or the health and welfare of the employee’s family.” 

J.J. Carter, COO and president of the Americas for Omnicom Group-owned FleishmanHillard, says, “Globally, we’ve restricted business travel to or from impacted countries or regions and limiting international business travel. We’re having employees use virtual video meetings in lieu of travel whenever possible.” 

Omnicom has implemented travel restrictions for all its agencies, which includes Porter Novelli and Ketchum. In an internal statement shared with PRWeek, Omnicom chief executive John Wren said all business travel has been postponed to regions flagged by the CDC, as well as Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan, where positive test results of COVID-19 have been increasing. 

Scenario planning

Agencies aren’t just banning overseas travel, but to and from cities in the U.S.

Publicis has travel restrictions in place for the Seattle area, where there have been 11 deaths due to an outbreak. 

With COVID-19 having spread to 19 states and more than 200 confirmed cases, agencies are considering all possible scenarios, including temporary office closures. In China, where the outbreak originated and there have been more than 80,500 cases of the virus, many offices have set up telecommuting operations. 

“Staff are working from home,” says Scott Kronick, CEO of public relations and influence for Asia at WPP-owned Ogilvy PR. “We have been using technology to hold virtual meetings with clients. We also have comprehensive [business continuity practices] in place that have been activated since mid-January that includes daily reporting and check-ins by staff.” 

Globally, Ogilvy has introduced guidelines on international travel, including local CEO approval on any bookings, and is encouraging video conferencing for all meetings where possible. 

Alejandro Romero, partner and CEO for the Americas at LLYC, says, “For the time being, we are working as normal, but are aware that the situation could change very quickly. We have a contingency plan that envisages how to deal with different scenarios that may arise.” 

This includes around office closures. “We offer our employees the chance to work from home periodically, so we already have an established telecommuting framework that we can activate at any time,” says Romero.  

Ketchum, meanwhile, has created a cross-functional task force for all aspects of the coronavirus crisis. 

“It is meeting daily and considering information from regional and global authorities to provide real-time guidance to staff,” says Esty Pujadas, partner and international president for Ketchum. “We offer workplace flexibility year-round, but as this situation is developing, we are taking every opportunity to remind colleagues of their ability to work remotely and providing them with the technology resources to do so.”

Client impact

In recent weeks, major events such as World Mobile Congress, the Facebook Global Marketing Summit and other industry events have been canceled. 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. 

Consumer events are also being canceled, such as the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, or postponed, as is the case with the new James Bond film No Time to Die, which had its premiere pushed back to November from April.

Everything from this summer’s Tokyo Summer Olympic Games to the North American International Auto Show in June could also be threatened. While South by Southwest in Austin this month is moving forward, Netflix, Apple and Starz have all reportedly canceled their attendance

“A number of our clients have pulled out of events and conferences, including SXSW,” Havas PR Global Collective chair James Wright says. “I think Cannes will likely be affected in a big way as well. A number are discussing their roles there.”

“I have heard from other agencies that some clients are asking for contract ‘pauses,’” he adds. “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.” 

Peter Finn, founding partner at Finn Partners, says his firm has seen disruptions for clients in its travel and lifestyle practice, but notes “it’s too soon to quantify the overall impact. In terms of our clients in other sectors such as health, technology and consumer, their businesses have not yet been impacted in any significant way.” 

“However, we are working with them closely to be prepared should this change in the coming weeks,” he says.

While it could have a negative effect on agencies’ bottom lines this year, the coronavirus outbreak has also given shops the opportunity to advise clients on everything from employee communications to risk analysis. 

“Our focus for clients remains on supporting them through this situation and developing creative solutions to new challenges," says Fleishman’s Carter, noting the challenges “vary by industry from social isolation to supply chain disruption to making major events virtual.” 

The outbreak has led to more than 40 new client assignments at Weber Shandwick, across sectors from food and beverage to healthcare, consumer packaged goods, travel and retail. Its work has focused on employee comms and safety, event participation, travel guidance and overall risk and conversation analysis. 

Weber has created a daily COVID-19 newsletter for clients and hired infectious disease specialist Dr. Michael Merson, former dean of the Yale School of Public Health and founding director of the Duke Global Health Institute, as a resource for clients. 

APCO Worldwide 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 clients’ business is being impacted by COVID-19, including meetings, travel, supply chain and a general concern for the wellbeing of their employees and communities,” says the agency's executive director of crisis and issues, Eliot Hoff.

This story was updated on March 6 to correct Merson's title. 

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