COVID-19 – the sequel: communication implications for destination marketing

By Bettina Garibaldi, Ketchum Travel & Economic Development

For most of 2020, people everywhere have lived in an endless time loop.

And, our every-day’s-the-same feelings have few of the comedic elements of the movie, “Groundhog Day,” the fantasy comedy starring Bill Murray as a TV weatherman who keeps reliving the same day, over and over again. But in a year of Groundhog Days, destinations have another chance to rise and shine. Whether cosmopolitan cities or beach-hugging hideaways, ski resorts or roadside inns, places that rely on tourism have had to walk a tightrope between the safety of workers/patrons, and the need for commerce. Should we be open or closed? Indoor dining or carry out only? Masks required or just recommended? Lives literally hang in the balance … as do the livings all of us rely on.

Lessons in crisis communications for destination marketers

The coronavirus – while yet to be defeated – did seem to be waning for a while, and many destinations were beginning to return to some semblance of normalcy. But the onset of fall has led to an uptick in cases, forcing elected officials, managers and other decision-makers to revisit their policies as they undergo continuous scrutiny from all stakeholders.

As a communications consultant for a number of destinations, including the island of Puerto Rico, I’ve lived through this never-ending crisis with my clients. Daily, they are challenged to separate facts from speculation, and make the best decisions for their constituents.

Compounding this nightmare is this troubling reality: eight months into the pandemic, consumers expect decision-makers to be able to get it right. Every time.

That may seem unfair. The virus has proven to be tricky and its ramifications increasingly dynamic. Still, the expectation is that governors and mayors, CEOs and storeowners, should make the right choices. And that’s a tall order to fill.

Missteps can hurt reputations. And when a reputation goes south, it can be difficult to recover.

Understanding the reputational risks

The potential reputational risks are many. Here are a few that may be problematic if the pandemic lingers or even grows in seriousness:

Risk #1: You blew it … again. 

Many stakeholders are of the opinion that governments and businesses did not act quickly enough or sufficiently during the pandemic’s first wave.  Thus, as another wave arrives, the expectation is that you’ll be much smarter this time. Make an error, and people may not be as forgiving.

Risk #2: Great expectations. 

This is a corollary to risk #1, in that we should all have had time to prepare for a more aggressive outbreak and have instilled changes to operations that will be sustainable despite a recurrence. Employee and patron safety remain essential, and any operation – essential or not – will be expected to have learned from the recent past.

Risk #3: Employee backlash. 

Just as consumers may have offered some businesses a free pass, so, too, may have employees the first time around. But not this time. If the pandemic continues to escalate, and employers are floundering, workers won’t be forgiving. Neither will prospective workers.

Risk #4: Villainisation. 

If the crisis continues to grow, and lives and livelihoods are further interrupted, finger-pointing will run rampant. Those who are most in the limelight are likely to bear more of the scorn if our Groundhog Day scenario lingers on.

Four top tips for preparing your COVID-19 communications

I definitely don’t have all the answers to these and other confounding COVID problems. But here are a few things I’ve learned this year that should be considered when deciding how to handle communications in a world turned upside down by this crisis.

Lesson #1: Lead; don’t follow

Communicate early and often, especially with respect to decisions that will impact the health and safety of employees and consumers. Don’t wait to have all the answers, because you’ll be waiting forever. Show you care and share what you do know. People appreciate transparency.  

Lesson #2: Step it up

You need to show – and articulate – improvement. Assess what you did previously from an operations and communications perspective, and be more aggressive and proactive this time around. Don’t be shy about demonstrating the efforts you’re taking and the progress you’re making. You’ve come a long way since March … so prove it.

Lesson #3: Don’t just cut and paste. 

Too often in the early phases of the pandemic, organizations were guilty of me-too communications. Everyone was saying the same thing, and those embracing that vanilla approach were often seen as inauthentic. Be specific with respect to what you know and don’t know, what’s worked, and what’s being considered. All we want is the truth.

Lesson #4: Embrace technology.

Technological innovations are helping us battle the pandemic, discover possible vaccines and even improve how we engage our audiences. Get creative; it can make a difference. For instance, Puerto Rico didn’t give up when tourists stayed home. It became the first destination to offer virtual weekend getaways via social media channels. These LIVE guided tours – delivered by actual guides – gave individuals a taste of the island life. And when the pandemic ends, I bet many of them will come for a “real” tour.

Times remain tough. Even with promising vaccines on the horizon, life may not return to what we once considered normal for years … if it ever does.

But don’t despair. We’re learning and growing and adapting. The good thing about our Groundhog Day existence is it gives us plenty of do-overs. And with determination and conviction, you’ll get it right.


If you’re a city, nation, or place  looking for guidance and counsel on what’s next for you, don’t hesitate to  reach out. Communications and reputation management is what we do. 

Bettina  Garibaldi is a senior vice president within the Travel & Economic Development sector at Ketchum, a leading global communications consultancy. She  is based in New York City.

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Looking forwards as a tourism industry during the uncertainty of COVID-19

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Investing in reputational capital 101: utilising data for informed decision making

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