While parts of the world are optimistically talking about reopenings and a "post-pandemic" life, India is struggling through the most deadly spike of COVID-19 in the country since the coronavirus pandemic began.
India has reported more than 20 million coronavirus infections and almost a quarter-million deaths, according to NPR. Only Brazil and the U.S. have higher death tolls. Oxygen shortages have contributed to the high death numbers, and crematoriums are struggling to keep up. The actual number of cases and deaths could be much higher, experts told NPR.
The surge in cases has also brought to light the emergence of a "double mutant" variant of the virus, which researchers worry will be even more transmissible and decrease the effectiveness of vaccines. The number of vaccines India has is also inadequate. As of Tuesday, 159 million doses have been administered in a country with a population of nearly 1.4 billion.
Agencies, networks and holding companies with offices in India have to work twice as hard to communicate with employees, who are understandably worried about their safety and angry at officials.
Arthur Sadoun, chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe, sent an email to all India employees about the implementation of a task force that will help them with 24-hour medical assistance and getting easier access to vaccines.
MSL, the main PR subsidiary of Publicis, has been severely impacted, with a significant number of its 450-plus employees in eight offices fighting off the virus, according to Amit Misra, CEO of MSL South Asia.
"We are holding steady so far by stepping in doubling and even tripling up and doing the best we can in terms of supporting each other and also delivering on client commitments," Misra says, via email.
Ruder Finn's Mumbai office was hit first in mid-March, and Atul Sharma, MD of India, made the decision to keep employees working from home while leadership monitored the situation. Things quickly escalated.
"When the wave extended to Delhi in April, quite a few of our colleagues and their families were affected," Sharma says, adding that as a precaution he shut down other offices including Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad.
Communicating support for its almost 8,000 employees in India has been top priority for WPP, which has offices in cities in some of the hardest-hit regions, like Mumbai, Bangalore and Gurugram.
The company is actively encouraging employees to take time off to prioritize their health and that of their families.
"We are working very closely with our local leaders to extend on-the-ground support, including the provision of resources, medical assistance and emergency support to our people and their families," says a spokesperson for WPP. "Mental health is also a critical focus for us, and we are encouraging our people to make use of our employee assistance programs, which offer free, confidential counselling and other forms of support."
WPP has also provided access to a helpdesk for COVID-19 resources, arranged partnerships for teleconsultations with medical providers and organized 24/7 emergency services support that offers access to ambulances and help finding hospital bed availability.
Ogilvy, a subsidiary of WPP, has four volunteer task forces across India, which have been working to support those seeking oxygen availability, medicine, insurance information, hospital beds and food supplies.
In addition to supporting employees with time off and directly engaging those most affected, fellow WPP firm Hill+Knowlton has made a significant contribution to a special fund for India established by Americares through the John W. Hill Foundation.
"Our hearts go out to all of our colleagues in India and everywhere they or their loved ones are at risk," said AnnaMaria DeSalva, global chairman and CEO. "We will continue our charitable giving through the John W. Hill Foundation to urgently direct resources where they can make the biggest difference."
Given the fast-moving situation, Weber Shandwick is working to deliver support in the form of mental healthcare, medical care and supplies and paid time off for its more than 200 employees in India.
“The safety and well-being of our colleagues is our top priority; our teams have shown incredible resilience and care for each other through an unimaginable situation," says Gail Heimann, Weber Shandwick president and CEO. "We are mobilizing with urgency and reassessing daily to support our people and their families in India, leveraging the full power of our network to find solutions.”
Agencies are also actively supporting and encouraging employees to get vaccinated. WPP is reimbursing the cost of vaccinations for employees and their dependents, and Ruder Finn is offering additional vaccination leave while the company covers the cost. MSL is in the process of vaccine facilitation at a network of hospitals as well as on-site office locations so its employees can get access as soon as possible.
As the seriousness of this second wave hit India, agencies had to grapple with a severe pivot in what clients were communicating to their stakeholders as well.
"Very quickly and as the magnitude of this wave became apparent, clients pivoted solely on providing COVID-related relief for communities at large across the country and for their own employees and stakeholders," Misra says. "This is the top communication priority right now."
BCW, a subsidiary of WPP, is being nimble and keeping in close contact with leadership at Genesis BCW, Six Degrees BCW and clients, according to Matt Stafford, president of Asia-Pacific.
"Many, if not most, of our clients are living through the same challenges that our colleagues are," Stafford says. "We are constantly connected with our clients virtually, and we are working together to define priorities to navigate the present environment."
However, whether employee or client, agency messaging is revolving around one common thread: people first.
"We are far more focused on the wellbeing of our people than any immediate business challenges," says a WPP spokesperson. "We have shared with our clients what we are doing to support our people, along with our expertise on how they can communicate with their own people and wider audiences."
For Ruder Finn, clients have been nothing but supportive because they too are worried about families who are affected, according to Sharma.
"[At the] beginning of the second wave, we had reached out to all our clients about the current situation and we are proud to share that we have received 100% support from our clients to help reprioritize work, reduce pressure and support the teams in every possible way to ensure we all come out stronger," he says.
After a year spent conducting business in a global pandemic, agency leadership across the industry has a game plan for communicating with stakeholders through these crises, even with the severity of the situation across India.
"After the experience of 2020, corporations are much better equipped to handle logistical challenges due to lockdowns now and as the immediate surge tapers out, we expect the business to quickly bounce back," Misra says. "But we are in a pray hard and watch harder mode."
(This article first appeared on PRWeek.com)