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Social media and Queensland's floods: some fail, some win

Donations as marketing attract Twitter fury

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Setting aside superficial theories about the “triple bottom line”, corporate charity is a problem: the public donor will be criticized as handing over money in exchange for publicity, the secret donor will be criticized for not appearing in the published donor lists.

Even before the floodwaters in Brisbane hit their peak, corporate donations to the flood appeals were making headlines.

The telco sector was (briefly) criticized for not being quick enough to donate to the Queensland Premier’s Flood Relief Appeal (in mitigation, they were somewhat distracted by looming inundation of their infrastructure while simultaneously trying to keep enough communications for emergency services).

Less-distracted companies, however, were quicker off the mark. As well as those companies that simply wrote cheques and issued media releases, many firms announced various kinds of “dollar-for-dollar” drives in which they promised a dollar of corporate funds for each dollar donated by either customers or staff.

The “charity marketing” environment quickly became overheated, and it should have come as no surprise when one company’s social media marketing team decided to blend donations and Facebook.

Bing Lee is only a familiar name in New South Wales and the ACT. Named after its late founder, the white goods and electrical retailer is still family owned (excluding its numerous franchises).

But it was Bing Lee whose social media staff hit on a strategy that would ultimately backfire: for everybody that “liked” its Facebook page, it would donate $1 to the flood appeal.

The backlash on other social media – particularly Twitter – was instant and vitriolic, so much so that the company pulled the campaign (while still promising to make a donation). In the backwash, a huge number of smug SMEGs* decided to raise their own profiles by explaining what Bing Lee did wrong.

Bing Lee’s only mistake, really, was that by using social media to market its charitable activities, it crossed a boundary that nobody really knew existed until after the event.

It boils down to this: people are happy to accept individuals promoting theirs or others’ charitable donations on social media, but bristle if a company does so.

But the attacks on Bing Lee far exceeded what’s reasonable. One company asks for Facebook friends in exchange for donations and is vilified; another (say, Harvey Norman) writes a cheque and briefly quells the vilification it had suffered for its public campaign to collect taxes on international Internet purchases.

At the very least, Bing Lee’s marketing team has learned a social media lesson. I hope the lesson isn’t “stay away from corporate charity”.

Knee-jerk vitriol – whether from ordinary users or from SMEGs* (who are only separated by how willing they are to proclaim their expertise to gullible clients) – teaches corporate Facebookers and Twitteres avoidance rather than sensitivity. Isn’t that the wrong lesson?

Wins and scams

Where social media has had wins in the flood crisis has been as an enabler of direct connections between people who need help and those who can offer it.

A couple of examples should suffice: there’s Wikifloods, a registry that matches donors to those in need; there’s the teenager, Jacob Ross-Munro, who set up a Facebook group that lets people post details about missing loved ones and pets. Many people have been using Facebook and Twitter to either reassure each other or, as necessary, to call for help. And there’s QLD IT Relief, which is accepting donations of computer equipment and peripherals for those who have lost their computers in the floods.

The interaction between social media and disaster relief will, however, create a new and challenging environment for governments in the future.

The Internet and social media allow people to move extremely quickly – faster, in fact, than regulators typically move, and there’s the problem.

Those who are familiar with the world of charitable activity and fundraising can generally set up a new drive under the aegis of an existing organization. Hence Wikifloods is an initiative of the Fitzroy Oxfam Group.

The very thing that makes the Internet an enabler is also a problem. Anyone can pursue a new disaster relief idea, including people who aren’t familiar with the rules of charitable activity, and scammers.

The first group mostly exposes themselves to trouble. Someone with a great relief idea has no trouble setting up a site and promoting their idea through social media, without ever reading up on the laws covering charity. Those include the requirement that anybody soliciting money or goods for charitable purposes be registered as a charity.

There’s a good chance, by the end of the week, that Australia will see a Tweet-storm of people complaining that someone’s great idea is being blocked by “old school” regulators that “just don’t understand” the new world of the Internet.

Whether regulators understand the Internet or not, they do understand scams – one of the things those boring regulations are designed to do is make ensure the legitimacy of charities. Given how quickly scams are also emerging, both on and off the Internet, to exploit either the vulnerable victims of the floods or the generosity of potential donors, we still need those regulations, like it or not.

*SMEG: Social Media Expert / Guru, identifiable by being self-assured where everyone else is confused. Just like any other conman, really.

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