As the people of Coventry rejoiced at taking the title of UK City of Culture 2021 last week, social media showed a mixed reaction from the North East.

All were eager to share their views on Sunderland missing out, with some seeing it as a failure. Arguably, much of the cynicism was fuelled by long-standing disappointment and disengagement with their city, with criticism and assumptions that the bid was doomed from the start. This group, it seemed, was very pleased with themselves after hearing the news. What was apparent here, however, were several comments indicating a lack of understanding of what the prestigious prize is fundamentally about.

At the other end of the spectrum, Sunderland’s shortlisting for the crown was commended as a brave attempt to bring much-needed change to the city. For these supporters, while saddened to be pipped to the post at the grand finale, a strong sense of pride prevailed, with words of encouragement and hope for the future filling social feeds.

Whatever the public response, it can’t be denied the title was the talk of the town.  A frisson of excitement was in the air in the run up to the announcement, fuelled by regional partners coming together, unified in standing by the brand they have crafted – Sunderland as a city poised for a cultural renaissance.  Tonic’s client Go North East itself backed Sunderland by branding a bus in bright livery featuring Sunderland’s City of Culture graphics with many others responding in a similar fashion.

The message was clearly reinforced that making the shortlist alone marked the beginning of something special in Wearside.

But what’s next for the competing cities of Sunderland, Stoke-on-Trent, Paisley and Swansea, without a positive result to strengthen their cultural credentials?

Like any brand, maintaining momentum is key. Once the media spotlight fades and is directed to Coventry over the next four years, it will be down to the bid teams, partnerships and organisations involved in the process to uphold the brand values they’ve worked so hard to build. At the core of any collaborative project is stakeholder engagement, so continuing to work together to consistently share key messages will be vital if they want to position their cities as being a major cultural player.

And that means ensuring their efforts, plans and successes continually remain front of mind with their audiences; delivering the right messages, to the right people at the right time, and via the right channels. For some, like Sunderland, this will involve doing more work to change perceptions, and we’d expect to see them working closely with established champions and ambassadors to keep flying the flag.

It’s safe to say public relations will be critical to achieve this, with an expertly executed strategy leading the way to success.

We’ll be watching closely as the cities take the next bold steps to reform their cultural status, and if now really is a time for change in Sunderland, we’re excited to see the transformation of its cultural scene. The bid has already helped to attract investment into cultural programmes and with promises from the bidding team of a lasting legacy to come out of the process, our position is firmly placed among the social supporters.

So, to all of those that had a negative response to the result, Sunderland and four other cities may not have won, but it doesn’t mean they’re losers.

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