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COVID-19 on Social Media: A Duo of Brand Triumphs and Misses

By: Sophie Maerowitz

March 30, 2020

As with any social media movement, online COVID relief efforts have seen their share of brands and individuals credibly contributing to social good, while others miss the mark completely.

While social media influencers and celebrities have had some cringeworthy moments in recent weeks, brand entities as a whole seem to be starting to find their footing, putting out more nuanced messaging and recalibrating their responses when they don’t land as intended. Here’s a look at a health care organization and two name-brands that made waves on social around COVID in recent days.

Cleveland Clinic Gives Thanks on #NationalDoctorsDay

For #NationalDoctorsDay (March 30), renowned medical center Cleveland Clinic posted a call-to-action for people to express thanks to medical providers. Their Twitter post steers clear of the “jump on a national holiday just for the heck of it” trap, especially given their esteem within the health care world.

The action also offers audiences a direct way to say thanks to medical practitioners outside of re-sharing the viral—and effective—”we stay here for you, please stay home for us” message from healthcare workers that has been circulating in recent weeks.

The Clinic’s “give kudos” call-to-action is routed through Kudoboard, a service providing “group cards for special occasions,” which reads like a feel-good social media feed. Cleveland Clinic has pinned a card at the top left with instructions for would-be posters, as well as a link to donate to the center for those with the resources to do so.

Takeaways: Cleveland Clinic participated in a trending hashtag in a way that didn’t appear self-serving, allowing social media audiences—many of whom may feel useless or helpless in the crisis—to give credit where credit is due on the front lines. Using Kudoboard as a secondary touchpoint to ask for donations was a smart move given how many other worthy causes are flooding social media channels with direct fundraising asks.

Yelp & GoFundMe Take Small Business Relief a Step Too Far

On March 24, The Verge reported that Yelp had automatically created GoFundMe-linked donation messages for business pages on the platform, in a move meant to help the many small businesses hit hard by the pandemic. Every business using the Yelp platform was automatically opted in; the effort was launched in tandem with GoFundMe’s Small Business Relief fund, a micro-grant program for small businesses.

The partnership was seemingly launched with good intentions, and the joint communications effort was fairly well-coordinated.

On its fundraising page, which has as of this writing raised $1,571,590 of its $1,600,000 goal, GoFundMe said that Yelp and Intuit QuickBooks (an accounting software company) had teamed up to donate up to $1.5M to the Small Business Relief Fund.

“It’s our hope that with the funds raised through this partnership, businesses will be able to support their employees and cover immediate expenses so that they’re in a better position to continue operating through this crisis, or able to reopen their doors once we overcome it,” read Yelp’s official blog.

What wasn’t communicated from the outset was the user-unfriendly opt-out process, an action requiring a copy of the business owner’s driver’s license and their business EIN (tax ID number).

The outcry on social from business owners was swift.

By March 26, Yelp had adjusted to feedback, making the feature opt-in only.

“We…are working with GoFundMe to provide a seamless way for businesses to opt into the program…as we have received a great deal of interest and support for the program from both consumers and businesses,” Yelp said in a blog post. The company acknowledged that some businesses “did not receive a notification with opt-out instructions, and some would have preferred to actively opt-in to the program.”

Critics also expressed frustration with GoFundMe’s default setting, placing the recommended tip for each donation at 15 percent (fees being a staple of GoFundMe’s business model). GoFundMe had not responded to this issue as of publishing.

In addition, some businesses were angry that Yelp had created an automated process for donations that they didn’t want or need.

Take the below account from The Oregonian, from a business owner caught off-guard when she learned that a client had donated to a GoFundMe page she didn’t realize had been launched.

Hyatt Training had been forced to close and move operations online due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Carson had no intention of asking clients for donations. Instead, she had asked people to support the gym by booking virtual sessions with personal trainers to ensure that her staff could work during the outbreak.

Takeaways: From the quick turnaround between the feature rollout and subsequent rollback, it’s clear that Yelp was watching the proverbial airwaves, monitoring social media for accolades as well as (the much louder) criticism of the feature. The company took responsibility (without passing the buck to its partner GoFundMe, though Yelp certainly could have done so)—a crisis response best practice.

The blowback serves as a cautionary tale for those working at (non-health care) brands that act on a worthy, if misguided, instinct to respond at the same pace as the virus’ economic fallout. It’s likely that the joint fundraising effort will still help businesses, but more caution—and wider outreach—is needed before making decisions for people at a time when they are already facing an increasingly limited number of choices.

At The Social Shake-Up