As Covid-19 rapidly becomes a global crisis of unprecedented proportions, we look at the services that corporates are asking of their PR agencies. This story follows our previous instalments, which considered the unique challenges in terms of public sector and corporate communications. 

What emerges from the comments below is how companies are relying on their agencies to "help them figure out the landscape", as Method Communications EVP Beth Haiken puts it. That often means intelligence in terms of what other companies are saying and doing, supporting the new realities of event management and planning, and — of course — understanding the sensitive complexities of internal communications while friends and family are in peril.

But it also points to the unique realities posed by the coronavirus situation, which — much like the global financial crisis of one decade ago — are likely to upend 'business as usual' crisis management techniques. “Covid-19 is testing people and planning like never before," said a crisis management leader at a global agency on condition of anonymity. "Corporations are finding the planning they have is often next to worthless: long, dense, complicated, outdated."

Instead, says the advisor, companies would do well to remember "three golden rules" — "Be clear who to call, what to do and what to say before you need to."

"Plans should be lean, light and graphic — simple to use and of high utility," he adds. "It’s frankly impossible for any plan to answer all the questions, but getting everyone aligned in the early stages mean you have a better chance of emerging OK. Bottom line: in a crisis, people need leadership. That’s what companies should be striving to demonstrate, no matter how difficult it may be at the time."

What follows below are edited comments from PR advisors across the globe, focusing specifically on how they are supporting clients. We will be updating this story in real time — please contact us if you would like to add relevant comment. We hope you find it a useful resource.  


Aaron Kwittken, CEO, KWT Global
“Like most crises, there will be waves of peaks and valleys for brands — communications moments punctuated by decisions made for them by regulators and made by them by leadership and boards. Wave one — this past week we saw brands migrate from doubling down on the obligatory, 'we care' and 'we are taking precautions' direct communications with customers, to wave two — brands having to communicate indefinite changes on how they actually run their businesses, if they are running at all. Wave three is coming next — brands announcing austerity measures, revising guidance, implementing cost containment measures and likely, reductions in force.
It’s important that companies communicate with prudence over panic and not fall prey to misinformation, or misguided information that was initially brought by our government officials not acting fast enough and then the media whose nonstop COVID-19 coverage has led to a full-on communications contagion. Personally, I would like to see more businesses with cash on hand provide support to those in need and to people in despair through in-kind donations, loan forgiveness, deferrals on payments and ways to combat food and health insecurity. If government can’t act fast enough, corporates can and should."

Beth Haiken, EVP, Method Communications
"This is a fast-moving situation without (until quite recently) a lot of solid information and/or direction coming out, so clients are relying on us to help them figure out the landscape —what are other companies like us doing? Who is closing the office? Who is canceling travel? What kinds of statements are various companies posting? What are people telling their employees?

For the same reason (fast-moving; no centralized info), clients are relying on us to track and relay industry developments in real-time — which conferences have been canceled? Which are moving to virtual? Which reporters have been pulled full time onto the virus beat?

Extra arms and legs — a lot of comms folks, especially at startups, are solo and may be stretched between various internal and external activities, such as updating a banner on the website and/or drafting internal messaging, so they just need help as they are pulled into different things."

Charles Lankester, EVP, risk management at Ruder Finn 
"We have seen a significant increase in clients asking for communications advice and strategy as they manage the Covid-19 environment. From financial services to hospitality clients, these are uniquely challenging times. We are assisting from 'big picture' CEO/leadership communications to all stakeholders to individual employee, client and guest communications.

A large part of our work involves forward thinking and trying to assess 'where' we will be in the weeks and months ahead and planning for this via detailed communications scenarios. Businesses will have to navigate through very tough times: we are helping clients think through the likely operational and communications challenges they will face. We are also advising clients as they simplify and modify their crisis management planning and teams."

Charles Palmer, global head of TMT, strategic communications, FTI Consulting
"Covid-19 is a rapidly evolving humanitarian, corporate and economic crisis. Initially through our offices in Asia, and now globally, we have been engaged with clients on an hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis. This is fundamentally different to the financial crisis of 2008 and goes well beyond the balance sheet. This is about the human impact for all stakeholders involved. It starts with our families and colleagues and is already rapidly transitioning to taking responsibility for the broader societal outcome. The response of every business should start with the real impact on grandparents, parents and vulnerable members of the community, before we look to customers and shareholders; at the same time we must make sure that all audiences are kept informed and engaged."

Eliot Hoff, global crisis practice lead, APCO Worldwide
"As companies continue to communicate around Covid-19, and plan for the very different potential paths of this crisis, they understand the serious responsibility they have to their stakeholders, wherever they operate. It has been incredible to see our clients live their values, and focus on the health and safety of their stakeholders, including their employees, customers and communities. While we are also very involved in business continuity planning that is happening concurrently, people have been the priority, regardless of industry sector. We have been on this journey with companies of every size, domestic and global, and the common thread is their commitment to society."

Gavin Devine, founder, Park Street Partners
“Just about every PR firm in London (and not just the ones with tacky specialist ‘units’) will have had the same call from clients in the past two or three weeks asking for urgent help with their response to coronavirus. What I’ve seen is a crisis that is unlike any other but is simultaneously just the same as many that have gone before. This event is different because it affects so much, has taken a long time to build up and yet is also constantly evolving.  The 2008 crash was pretty rapid and, although it had a devastating economic impact, it didn’t simultaneously lead to people working from home and avoiding contact with others. And once it was done it was pretty much done.

But this time around is similar because many of the same challenges also apply:
1. A really significant part of ‘crisis comms’ is really internal comms. That is definitely true this time.
2. Yes, HR departments and lawyers are really that bad at writing clearly.
3. As with all comms activity it is impossible to communicate clearly and effectively without clear policies and business strategies to communicate about. Muddled thinking leads to muddled communications. Making sure that clients have put in place the right operational responses, internal and external, to this issue is the first job of a good comms adviser.

In the end, keeping a level head — and deploying a certain amount of black humour — is the only way to get through a situation like this. But comms folk, like the wider world, will get through it. It’s just a matter of time."

Gavin Megaw, corporate MD, Hanover
"The biggest issue for clients is time. They are facing a huge resource challenge in keeping their normal business functions running as smoothly as possible, while simultaneously dealing with the operational impact of Covid-19. We’ve been embedded with a number for high profile clients since late January, taking the strain of the issue away from them and helping to scenario plan impending challenges. This is an exceptionally fluid and complex issue, and it will not be going away anytime soon. Clients are looking for partners who can commit and sustain support for the medium to long term, helping them to the other side of the issue. With that in mind, we are also working with clients to help them plan how they ‘bounce-back’ once the situation stabilises."

Gerry Hopkinson, founder and CEO, Unity
"Most businesses have now addressed the first phase of preparedness and communication around Covid-19 including policies and procedures for business continuity, remote working, hygiene and health, reporting and self-isolation. Many are now moving to a second phase considering how they can adapt in the short-term, refining or evolving offerings to minimise risk and ensure continuity.

A bigger and more important focus will be on the human factor, i.e. finding ways to reassure staff, customers, shareholders and stakeholders and work in co-operation across industries, sectors, countries and internationally to find ways to tackle this truly global challenge. Now is not the time to go into the bunker, or go silent. We need to reach out, even when we can’t physically meet. We need to communicate, even if it’s to share a problem or concern. Above all, we need empathy, trust and co-operation and we need to focus on the reality that we are all in this together. I have no doubt, we will rise to the challenge."

Lydia Lee, president, Weber Shandwick China
"As an agency, we have diverted all of our resources into providing strategic counsel and support. We have a dedicated team of analysts (data and government policies) to provide real-time intelligence and feedback, distilling data into actionable insights and providing data-driven strategies to support business decisions. We have seen a surge in requests surrounding public opinions, discussions, and analysis regarding the Covid-19 outbreak. A number of our regional clients have requested counsel on creating holding statements, understanding the competitive landscape, crisis management (consultation and training) as well as issues and crisis scenario development to ensure they are well prepared.

Our China office has seen clients looking to understand and navigate the recovery process. The current landscape is determining budget re-allocations, and we see that clients have to re-focus all offline activities and events to online.  As such, we see an increase in demand for more online engagements in terms of content, short videos and community management as China works through its recovery period. With these realities in mind, we've been tracking national online and social conversations regarding employees' 'back to work' experiences. We found several trends and commonalities that went on to help clients and communicators frame the right messages or co-create the right programs with their HR departments to address these employee concerns. Just last week, we hosted a webinar with over 50 communicators regarding this topic."

Margaret Key, CEO, MSL Asia-Pacific & MEA
Overall, I am impressed at the manner in which clients are handling the impact of coronavirus, both internally and externally.As for advice, we have been asked to remain on standby for issue management in some markets to daily monitoring/reporting of how the coronavirus is being covered and its impact on specific market segments.  Many clients have taken decisions to postpone events or cancel in-person meetings for the time being. We have also been asked to consider how to manage content and story development amidst the coronavirus reporting and updates. 
On this last point, the social, health and economic impact of the coronavirus is unprecedented.  Companies need to be focused on remaining authentic and helpful to the community.  This is how we will best support our clients.

Matthew Della Croce, president, global corporate & Europe, Allison+Partners
"The first step PR firms have been focused on is helping clients manage communications to various stakeholders around the virus situation itself. This includes stakeholder communications for employees, partners, customers, the investment community and the communities where clients live and work. We’ve been sharing best practices on how to manage in this crisis period and ensuring clients remain true to their mission, brand and purpose.

We are now actively working on step two, which is scenario planning and business continuity planning. This definitely involves assessing the marketing communications program/campaign and how it potentially needs to pivot and adjust given the situation. We are assessing other channels that might be more impactful during this time — if an organization relied heavily on events, we’re working to move these online; if a client was focused on national earned media, we’re looking at more direct channels for b2b clients; we’re looking at how we need to adjust owned channels or digital content to be more appropriate given the situation; do corporates need to be thinking more about their social impact efforts — all as examples.

We are also scenario planning to address potential revenue impacts and thinking through how this impacts all aspects of a company and what will need to be communicated, and when. Even though clients may take a short-term hit to their bottom line, it is critical to determine ways a corporate can help their customers through this period, which will be beneficial to the company over the long-term.

Step three will come eventually, which will be helping clients plan for coming out of this crisis period — how can a company improve their offering, deepen customer trust, innovate and launch now in order to come out of the crisis with real momentum."

Lou Hoffman, president and CEO, the Hoffman Agency
"In spite of coronavirus’s damaging effect, business goes on. Sales people are still calling on prospects. Engineers are still working on new products. Somehow, some way, we need to push through the turmoil because when normalcy returns — and it will eventually return — communications will have a big say in which companies minimize the long-term damage.

There’s an opportunity for agencies to help the C-suite strike the right balance of transparency and optimism. You don’t want to scare people, but they need to hear the truth. At the same time, companies need to communicate a path forward. Being on the outside, agencies are in the best position to challenge and even push executives to meet this challenge.

Last summer CEOs from the Business Roundtable publicly shared a statement that shifted the purpose of a corporation away from only serving the interests of shareholders to paying equal attention to employees, protecting the environment and dealing with suppliers in a fair manner. I’d say a prove-it opportunity just landed on their doorstep, not just for the Fortune 500 but all companies. Will internal comms see it this way? I’m not so sure." 

Rachel Catanach, president, FleishmanHillard Greater China
"Our work for clients ranges from supporting them with their first positive coronavirus employee, to managing or reinventing cancelled events to developing programmes to support employees working from home, to providing guidance to leaders on how to communicate authentically at a time of unprecedented misinformation levels. We are also advising on how companies can begin to tap into the momentum in China, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia.  The road to recovery certainly won’t be a straight one, nor equal for all industries.  But there is certainly increasing appetite by consumers in these markets to get on with their lives in the “new normal” and many brands are considering how best to engage in this desire while avoiding the obvious missteps.

Like any time of great change, there will be winners and losers. Brands need to juggle the management of the day-to-day reality while keeping an eye on future opportunities and an ear to the ground as consumer sentiment evolves."