Your toolkit to managing your digital reputation post-COVID-19

We’re not going to insult you by explaining how destinations and places can market themselves on social media. That ship has sailed – and it’s been evidenced by the beautiful drone footage campaigns that we’ve been seeing from all corners of the world. We know that you’re working on a myriad of plans to adapt as new regions become safe. We know that you are creating campaigns and sourcing content ahead of the resumption of international travel. But the question is, are you also managing your digital place reputation?

The marketing benefits of digital and social media channels are a fact at this point. The problem, though, is that you’re not the only one telling your story. Anyone with their own Twitter, LinkedIn or TripAdvisor account is sharing your story too – and it might not be a story you're proud of.

The impact of COVID-19 on place brands

Research from Bloom Consulting and D2 Analytics suggests that 68% of people have changed their perceptions of a country during the pandemic – and 95% of the time, this was due to public governance. And perceptions of countries will impact on perceptions of cities, regions, and destinations within that country.

While the world at large was unprepared for a virus of this magnitude, it’s clear that certain countries have reacted more positively than others; this is generally because they reacted rapidly, decisively, and communicated clearly. New Zealand, Germany, and South Korea are all benefiting from this positive net gain to their nation brand, for example. The US, UK, and Italy haven’t fared so well.

Like most crises, the policy decisions impacting on perceptions of places take place outside the control of destination marketing organisations, economic development teams, and investment promotion agencies – often even out of the control of diplomatic teams. Nonetheless, it falls to place brand custodians and place marketing teams to manage the reputational impact for their places and generate positive sentiment.

Your digital reputation management toolkit

Reputation is a very intangible concept. The perception of your place exists solely in the mind of others, and it’s not necessarily an accurate reflection of your community. Nonetheless, if the commonly held opinions are negative, you could be fighting an uphill battle to attract tourism, talent, and investment. Bloom Consulting and D2 Analytics suggest that you need, on average, 1.8 positive perceptions to outweigh a single negative.  So, what do you have in your digital arsenal to help manage your reputation, rather than just market your destination?

Social listening is key

To start with, you have to know how people feel about your city, region or nation.  Our recent survey of Place Branding for the 2020s, revealed that 40% of our “post-COVID” respondents were planning to increase investment in social listening – monitoring your brand’s social channels for direct mentions and discussions regarding specific topics, which, crucially, is then analysed to gain insights and plan actions to act on opportunities or meet the challenges head-on. Social listening can help you not only determine what kind of positive messaging you need to be implementing to counter any negative perceptions, but can also ensure you get your timing right, which is particularly crucial as countries emerge into a very fragile state of ‘open for business.'

“We have to be reacting to countries as they come out of the crisis,” explained Carlos Gonzalez, Director General at Visit Mexico. “We’re running a social listening platform which we can use alongside the intelligence from the APCO offices in our 16 key markets to gauge the social mood of the country. It would be rude to promote tourism in a country that’s not yet ready to travel. So that’s something we’ll be keeping a close eye on.”

Amplify positive stories

Luckily, people have never been more desperate for good news; Google searches for the phrase “good news” in the US shot up rapidly as lockdowns were instituted. There have been a number of destinations who have been doing this well during the pandemic – particularly around local companies who pivoted to provide PPE or to support the community.

But you can also share stories that help contradict negative perceptions. Following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, tourist arrivals dropped by a third and the nation’s image was tarnished with images of destroyed monuments and negative reporting. The social media campaign ‘I am in Nepal now #stillsmiling’ encouraged travellers to replace these images of a devastated country; instead, people were sharing images of a country ready to accept tourists.

Manage what people find when they are looking for you

Google does not share their search volume data. However, it is estimated Google processes approximately 70,000 search queries every second, translating to 5.8 billion searches per day and approximately 2 trillion global searches per year. And of course, Google isn’t the only search engine out there.  City Nation Place Awards winner Discover Puerto Rico shared information on how they used Google’s DMO Partnership tools to manage what people found when they searched following the disaster wrought by Hurricane Maria.

As cities and destinations seek to build confidence in prospective visitors, investors, international students, and indeed in their own citizens, using Google’s [free] tools to manage the imagery and stories that find their way to the top of the algorithms is essential. People you’ve never interacted with are forming opinions about your place without your input: while you can’t stop this, if you’re shouting your successes as loudly as you can and encouraging local ambassadors to amplify your message, you can mitigate some of these negative perceptions.

Engage with your residents, your businesses, and your prospective visitors

Social media has lots of flaws, but it connects you instantly with over 3.8bn people. Respond to people who engage with you. Connect with prospective customers. At a time when people are uncertain and anxious, the human touch has never been more important.

Tell stories with your actions

Use your place brand strategy to shape all your actions. Helsinki’s virtual city taps in neatly to their identity as a leader in digital innovation. The Faroe Island’s virtual tourism campaign shares their values of creativity and hospitality. And, most importantly, these were inspiring stories in their own right. Yes, they both aimed to increase their digital presence. However, they also garnered an onslaught of positive media attention. The two initiatives were worth their weight in virtual gold.

Be transparent, be honest

People are anxious right now. If you’re open and honest about the policies and procedures you’re implementing, you can go a long way towards assuaging any fears, building confidence, and cementing a trustworthy reputation.  

Related reading:

Crisis management of the COVID-19 pandemic: the impact on nation brands

Hall of fame: 15 of the best place marketing and place branding campaigns

The politics of space, culture, and placemaking in post-COVID place branding

The Chinese traveller in a post-COVID-19 world

Take another look: Azerbaijan's path to a successful design identity

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