Prepare for the worst: Crisis management strategies for place branding organisations

Coronavirus is dominating the news cycle. In the face of so many personal tragedies and an international emergency, it has also challenged the tourism and events sectors to act responsibly, creating a potentially devastating economic impact. Tourist hotspots across Asia are empty as trips to the region are cancelled. The Mobile World Congress Barcelona 2020 has been cancelled due to “the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak.” And the Economist Intelligence Unit is predicting that it could take a year for China’s economy to recover to pre-coronavirus levels, causing a global loss of around US$80bn. Even looking beyond the immediate loss of tourism and investment dollars, the lack of trust could take months - or even years - to repair.

While pandemics raise unusual and difficult challenges for investment promotion and destination marketing, there are a number of case studies we can look to for best practice in crisis management. We explored what connects these examples of best practice in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Responding to a natural disaster

2019 saw its fair – or rather, unfair – share of wildfires. From the Amazon Rainforest, to California to Australia, destinations were forced to react to the twin disaster of the fire and the media coverage of the event. In reference to the 2017 fires in California’s Wine Country, Caroline Beteta, President & CEO at Visit California explained that “in reality, less than 1% of California was affected by the fire. Of course, that’s not the story that the media told.”

The sensationalism is hard to combat. A headline proclaiming the blazing destruction of California’s Wine Country will get more clicks than one explaining that 98% of the grapes were left completely intact and less than five wineries were affected. It’s true, of course, but that’s not necessarily what the media wants. And unfortunately, it doesn’t paint a destination as an ideal place to visit or invest.

In the face of overwhelmingly negative media, how can you tell a story that will encourage people to return to your destination?

Visit California responded by putting real human truths at the heart of their story. “It was right around Thanksgiving when we were coming out of this crisis,” describes Caroline. “So, we laid a table… we made it a fundraiser to support the community, bought in celebrity chefs, and really shined a spotlight on this place that has incredible resilience.”

A feast was laid right down the middle of a field connecting Napa and Sonoma County. ‘The Grateful Table’ celebrated many of the first responders to the fire, while also providing the media with a new story to tell. One that demonstrated the strength of the community and showed that the best way people could support those affected by the fire was to visit. On top of media coverage, the event also raised just under US$150,000 for those most affected by the fire.

The collaboration between so many individuals and organisations provided a powerful demonstration of unity and community spirit and shared the message with the world that the County was ready and open for business.

Maintaining your narrative during the anniversary of a disaster

In early September 2017, Hurricane Irma left a million Puerto Ricans without power. Just two weeks later, Hurricane Maria made land and devastated the island. A desperate plea for food and water painted on to a crossroads was picked up by the media and became the symbol of a country in desperation. The image also ignited global support for the relief effort. The country began to pick itself back up again, but as Puerto Rico neared the anniversary of the event, a new crisis reared its head.

“We saw what was about to happen. It was a second disaster,” says Brad Dean, CEO at Discover Puerto Rico. “You see, the first disaster was Maria coming. The second disaster was that the media was about to remind everyone that Maria had come.”

“What we found was that, historically, you were ten times more likely to hear or see something negative [in the anniversary of a disaster] than you were something positive, and even those 10% that weren’t negative were stories about the work that hadn’t been done.”

Puerto Rico needed to shift the narrative, and they hinged their story on the plea for help that had gone viral. Instead of giving the media time to resurface the image, they returned to the area and painted a new message – one that proclaimed ‘Bienvenidos [Welcome]’. #CoverTheProgress challenged news outlets to acknowledge the tragedy, yes, but also to celebrate how far the nation had come. And the story took off, with over 900 million impressions globally. 70% of the coverage was positive, as opposed to the usual 10% of coverage on the first anniversary of a natural disaster.

Like California, Puerto Rico piqued global interest by returning the focus to the community impacted by the catastrophe, combatting sensationalism with authenticity. But they also put substantial work into their digital reputation. By working with Google, Puerto Rico were able to manage their online footprint to create a more accurate depiction of the restoration. Outdated photos of the destruction were replaced, and through carefully curating their digital presence, Puerto Rico ensured prospective visitors weren’t dissuaded by images that no longer reflected Puerto Rico’s reality.

“Right now, there’s no better way to help the people of Puerto Rico than to travel there,” states Brad. “To experience the island and infuse that economic injection that creates the economic livelihood that people depend on.”

Managing a man-made crisis

Both California and Puerto Rico are examples of how destinations can react to a natural disaster, but unfortunately, there are many cases of political leaders responding to a human tragedy. George W. Bush’s televised speech following the collapse of the Twin Towers is perhaps the most iconic. However, it was Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister for New Zealand, who rewrote the book on how leaders should respond to a disaster.

On the 15th March 2019, there were two consecutive shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. 51 people were killed and another 49 injured in what the Prime Minister described as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”

New Zealand’s place brand is built on firm values of integrity, resourcefulness, and  Kaitiaki – a Maori concept that means custodian or guardian and embodies their desire to support their people and protect their homeland. The terrorist attack was a sharp contradiction of these beliefs, but Prime Minister Arden’s actions demonstrated these values anew.

“[Those affected by the shooting] have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand. There is no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme and unprecedented violence.”

“He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety. And that is why you will never head me mention his name. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless. And to others, I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”

In avoiding war rhetoric of retaliation and vengeance, and in refusing to give name or recognition to the perpetrator, Prime Minister Arden became the focal point of the values that underpin the New Zealand brand. And more than that, she avoids the trap of falling in to an us / them rhetoric that perceives a terrorist as an emissary from a hostile realm.

Rather than meeting violence with violence, Prime Minister Arden became the ‘mourner-in-chief’ for a whole nation, attending funerals and memorials alike in quiet recognition of what has been lost. Furthermore, the government of New Zealand announced a ban on the ownership of military-style weapons to prevent further tragedies from occurring. Over 10,000 weapons were handed in to the police within a month of launching their gun buy-back scheme.

This isn’t a response that could be cut-and-paste into any country. It resonated because it reflected the core beliefs of a nation. Her actions weren’t driven by tourism or investment promotion, but rather by understanding the identity of her nation and working to express that truth on the international stage. By acting on these values, New Zealand went a long way to restoring the perception of their country in the eyes of the world.

Light at the end of the tunnel

We don’t want to suggest that there’s an easy fix. And the response will need to be tailored for each destination, and for each crisis. But it’s clear that getting your story out clearly and as early as possible is crucial. Encouraging visitors and investors to return to your city, nation or region is fundamental to regaining your economic footing, and to do that, you need to inspire trust in the strength of your place and your community.

Though it’s early days, we can already see some countries on the fringe of the coronavirus epidemic working to share their own stories. A number of business owners in the Arashiyama region in Kyoto, for example, have launched an ‘empty tourism’ campaign, highlighting the lack of crowds at popular tourist sites; one poster of a monkey comes with the caption: “It’s been a while since there were more monkeys than humans.”

Barcelona has also launched a new campaign in the wake of MWC Barcelona 2020 being cancelled. Turisme de Barcelona are coordinating ‘Barcelona Opportunity Week’ to help fill the gap. The MWC generates about 14,000 temporary jobs and generates around €500 million for Barcelona annually. With the city unexpectedly empty, Barcelona Opportunity Week is encouraging visitors to visit the city over the week of the MWC to take advantage of a week of special rates across restaurants, hotels and cultural establishments. The slogan? “Come to Barcelona. Now is the time.”

While they have lost the opportunity to continue to develop the networks essential for the development of their own tech sector and expertise, Barcelona Opportunity Week demonstrates the resilience and determination of a city. Despite the crisis, by acting quickly and decisively, the city will be able to support many of the local businesses who would have been hit by the sudden loss of revenue.

Crisis Management 101

No one wants to believe that the worst will happen. But by anticipating it, by preparing for crisis, you ensure that you’re best placed to act should the worst come to pass.

1. Stay true to your values.

If you have a clear brand proposition, it clarifies your actions and priorities in the event of a crisis. Plus, it gives you years of reputation to pull on when you’re trying to reinforce faith in your brand.

2. Be prepared. 

Have a playbook prepared for a range of potential disaster or crises with strategies that you can implement immediately. There’s too much happening during a catastrophe to be worrying about brand strategy so make sure that you have a plan at your fingertips when you need it the most.

3. Act rapidly.

Don’t let the narrative be written without your input. Once upon a time you had 24 hours to prepare your story. Today? You’re already one of the last people to speak about an event and social media has been telling your story for some time without your input or your control.

4. Continue to share your story.

And in particular, share the story of your people, your community. Sensationalism might sell well, but so does human interest. Highlight the faces behind the catastrophe and share their determination and resiliency and kindness.

Missed the event in person? Don't worry...

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.