On 10 March, Italy imposed a nationwide lockdown in its attempt to halt the spread of the outbreak in a country with more than 30,000 known infections and over 2,500 deaths.
PRWeek has learned that many agencies were already working remotely from as early as two days after the first case of the virus was announced in February.
This has meant more staff working from home, less contact with clients, and thousands of cancelled events. It has thrown up a host of difficult personal and professional challenges.
PRWeek has spoken to two holding company bosses still living under lockdown in Milan this week about their experiences.
They warned that fake news and misinformation about the virus is eroding trust in institutions, and reflected on how the situation may spark demand for universal healthcare globally and lead to the complete transformation of the economy.
'Lockdown is tough'
The general manager of Omnicom PR Group Italy, Massimo Moriconi, describes the consequences of the lockdown as tough.
"It has changed how we’re working, but also how we’re living," he says. "I have a family and two children, so it is difficult to explain the situation at home and keep morale up."
Moriconi explains that being part of an international holding group means they could learn from and adopt measures from colleagues in Asia because, with more than 120 staff, the lockdown provides many logistical challenges.
"It's a delicate moment, but agencies with a strong culture should be OK. We have been working from home [since] two days after the first confirmed case.
"We’re doing everything we can to maintain conversations, of course; it's important to maintain that contact for health and morale. Continuing to work on projects also gives us motivation.
"The main setback I see is around childcare and other personal issues for staff, but it's important to try to remain positive. We are in this together."
He outlines the difficulty in communicating on behalf of clients in the industries that are worst affected, including tourism, hospitality and luxury cars.
"We're often using unconventional methods to communicate to press and media. Video conferencing has become important. My internal comms advice is to really focus on your staff wellbeing in the coming weeks."
Moriconi says current projections expect the Italian economy to begin its recovery in September, so the following months should be used to prepare and create opportunities for clients. However, Italy could expect to have lost as much as five per cent of its GDP by then, and Moriconi says it's difficult to assess the impact on the comms industry.
"I suspect it could be higher," he adds.
Nonetheless, the crisis has provided opportunities for clients in other areas such as tech, apps, home delivery, and the food and drug industries.
"But their communications need to remain authentic during this time," he states. "From an industry standpoint, I think we should be coming together and talking about these innovations, like the rapid digitalisation of schools."
Moriconi is concerned about the spread of fake news and misinformation during the pandemic, especially that with an anti-EU sentiment coming from untrustworthy sources. But he is optimistic about how the challenges could transform the economy.
"As businesses develop new ways of working, and for the communication industry working from home might become the new normal.
"My advice is to take all the precautionary measures in the UK. This is the moment to get prepared, as a company and a family, because it is not 'if' but 'when' the pandemic becomes visible."
'Speak to everybody'
SEC Newgate chief executive Fiorenzo Tagliabue is also based in Milan. He stresses how sensitive the group was to the difficult personal situations in which its companies' employees might find themselves.
"In the past we have had a large number of people suffering serious diseases, or a close relative, and we have always provided extra allowances and flexibility with respect to national rules. Most of them, luckily, are now fine and easily refitted to work in the most convenient way for them."
He echoes the advice of Moriconi about maintaining employee mental health and wellbeing. Daily calls with team leaders are important, along with weekly contact with all staff.
Tagliabue explains that the company, whose portfolio includes UK agencies Newgate and Newington, started remote work about three weeks ago as concerns for staff grew in what he described as his biggest personal and professional challlenge.
"As comms professionals we are used to crisis, but this is unique," he says.
"We need to think about how we storytell, and how we can communicate better internally and externally, while being in constant contact with clients who are also reacting to this situation."
He believes the outbreak may change the way the industry works for good.
"Our agency has kept delivery almost unchanged and clients service has gone unnoticed. Surely the future development of technologies and a larger habit in organisation to adopt forms of remote working will remain as one of the most significant legacies of this exceptional time."
He urges solidarity across the industry with regard to sharing comms strategies, and the need for clear, transperent and authorative voices from government and healthcare professionals.
"The authorities need to speak with one voice. The crisis shows that, as communicators, we should devise strategies that speak to everybody.
"The UK should be at an advantage because it can learn from the things Italy didn't know and react quicker to take care of colleagues and family. And as agencies better prepare clients for what is about to come, it is a good time to propose to your company and clients new ideas and initiatives."
But Tagliabue thinks the UK government could react quicker because the virus spreads so fast, suggesting a stricter and more prudent approach. He also thinks these events may result in a greater demand from the public for free universal healthcare at a global level, particulary in the US.
"Economic measures have just been introduced, so it is hard to predict the impact they might have in general or on specific segments of the economy. Certainly it is clear the difference the German [economic] package made, and when it comes to funding by debt, a balanced budget is always a better start.
"In general, communications and other technologies should be regarded as a powerful booster in the future to restart the econmy, so support in those sectors should be welcomed."