How Iceland Used Brilliant PR to Bounce Back from a Natural Disaster

In business, your reputation is just as important as the quality of your service.

So what do you do when that reputation is damaged? Take a page from Iceland‘s book, which rose to the occasion when its own reputation was damaged after a natural disaster.

In April 2010, a volcano in Iceland named Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced AY-yah-fyad-layer-kuh-tel) suddenly erupted, spewing ash and lava into the surrounding environment.

Over the next six days, the ash cloud the volcano created spread across all of Europe and grounded millions of travelers. It was the worst air traffic disruption since World War II.

Suddenly, any searches for Iceland brought up scary news reports of environmental damage and videos of black ash clouds and molten lava. Though the eruption wasn’t anyone’s fault, Iceland suddenly had a huge reputation problem on their hands.

Flash forward to today, and Iceland now sees more than two million tourists per year, and those numbers have never dropped–not even in the summer after the eruption.

So how did its leaders avoid disaster and transform a bad reputation into an overwhelmingly positive one? They used this five-step checklist:

1. Overtake the bad coverage with good.

To combat its negative online reputation at the time, the government of Iceland called on the public to write as many good stories about Iceland as they could. The idea was to flood out the negative press with good press.

More than 1.5 million stories were posted in the first week on social media and on the campaign’s dedicated website. This was the beginning of the PR campaign that would reverse Iceland’s reputation and reposition it as a popular travel destination.

Instead of spending time and energy responding to negative PR, sometimes time is better spent creating new and positive content for your business.

2. Leverage the power of word of mouth.

The name of that campaign is “Inspired by Iceland.” A survey of tourists at the time reported that 80 percent of tourists would recommend Iceland as a travel destination, the highest among any European country.

Brooklyn Brothers, a U.K.-based ad agency that worked on the campaign, realized that word of mouth would be a powerful force in turning the tide of public opinion. If enough everyday, relatable people sung the praises of Iceland, their friends and colleagues could change their opinions, too.

If you want to influence public opinion, get real, satisfied customers to speak out about your business. Testimonies from regular people are much more powerful than a slick ad campaign.

3. Get everyone involved.

To pull off such an ambitious rebranding effort, everyone needed to take part: government and public agencies, corporations, local businesses, people, celebrities, and tourists.

Iceland succeeded in pulling together people from diverse industries and uniting them in their love for Iceland to contribute to the campaign. It includes regular people and celebrities alike–even the president of Iceland.

When facing a big PR problem, reach beyond the PR team and get everyone on board. Your entire company be motivated to succeed, and you’ll be able to draw on everyone’s strengths.

4. Turn a negative into a positive.

To some, the idea of active, possibly-dangerous volcanoes is a negative aspect. To others, though, visiting a country with such a dynamic landscape is an exciting adventure.

Instead of pushing issues like active volcanoes under the rug, Iceland embraced its natural landscape and made it a central part of its brand.

Here’s how one ad agency expresses it: “Iceland is an active landscape constantly in flux…A volcanic island, our nation rose from the pristine Atlantic Ocean creating fertile pastures and some of the world’s most impressive natural wonders.”

Inspired by Iceland also makes the country’s beauty and adventurous aspect a focus of its campaign. The website lists over 400 “Nature” attractions including glaciers, mountains, cliffs, fjords, caves, islands, and waterfalls.

Through the eyes of this campaign, to visit Iceland is to experience true adventure. A characteristic that some people see as a negative can sometimes be rebranded as a positive.

5. Coordinate a strategic campaign with an authentic message.

Every year, the Inspired by Iceland campaign continues to create new, original content that sparks interest in the country, like a recent video entitled “The Hardest Karaoke Song in the World,” which teaches you Icelandic words at a dizzying pace.

At the same time, the messages of the campaign have always been authentic and in the voice of real people. It’s never had a slick, advertising feel, which is why it’s been so successful.

Both of these factors–strategy and relatability–are important in creating a positive PR campaign. Plan strategically for your PR campaign, but research your audience well to make sure the message is relatable. If you can, have everyday people deliver the messages for you.