In a time of crisis, the response from the influencer community is a tale of two cities. One collective is determined to change the narrative.
Written by Sarah Morrison
It started with a simple, and yet revealing question of the times: ‘Do you know anyone who needs Personal Protective Equipment?’ read a WhatsApp message to Serena Goh, a digital content creator based in London.
Goh suspected the answer to her father’s question was yes; after all, the 35-year-old fashion influencer, having risen to prominence by the success of her blog, The Spicy Stiletto, knew her network’s value to be vast.
Boasting over 250,000 followers on her Instagram page and close to 140,000 followers on her blog’s Facebook page, Goh swings in the big leagues where successful digital brands are concerned. Commonly called “macro-influencers,” these content creators are defined by their followings of up to 300,000—followings that more often than not, engage with these creators at extraordinary rates.
But now, plagued by an unrelenting pandemic like so many others, Goh saw the question of PPE as something of a personal call to action.
She quickly turned to her circle.
It didn’t take long before Goh’s close friend, Anthony Urbano, a prominent fashion influencer in his own right, opened up to Goh on the subject, in a group chat between the two.
As a resident of New York City, the current epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States, Urbano knew, perhaps better than most, the outbreak’s path of devastation—the rising case numbers, the abandoned storefronts, the overwhelmed healthcare systems—to be very real.
But perhaps what was most telling for Urbano, was the personal account of the crisis through the eyes of his own mother—a nurse practitioner fighting on the frontline in a hospital in New Jersey.
“I’m fine after working last night. So many codes. Hospital is chaotic. I’m ordering my own PPE. Respirator, masks, face shield, hazmat suit, everyone is doing the same thing for our own protection because hospitals are running low on these supplies,” said Urbano’s mother in a text to Urbano, later shared with Goh. “So many are getting sick and dying even nurses. One nurse in another unit died yesterday of COVID. [She] was only in her 50s.”
It was at this moment that Goh and Urbano felt the human cost of the crisis to be more palpable than ever. Following their conversation, Goh and Urbano realized they had to act.
What resulted was the launch of the pair’s charity organization, known as The Mask Fund. Its mission? To deliver Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, to the frontline.
“[In the early days of the launch] Anthony and I probably had more FaceTime calls in a week than in the entirety of our friendship, in say, I don’t know, seven years,” said Goh.
For several weeks, Goh and Urbano searched the globe for suppliers of N95 masks, sending countless of emails per day to multiple manufacturers for contracts, and enlisting the help of other non-profit organizations, like RETI Center and Last Mile NYC, to distribute their supply.
According to The Mask Fund’s GoFundMe page created on March 31, the organization set an initial fundraising goal of $50,000. As of April 26, just four weeks later, The Mask Fund had already raised close to $20,000; the entirety of which will go directly towards protecting healthcare workers stationed in the nation’s hardest-hit hospitals.
“After our first week, with the help of your generous donations and the help of @reit_center and @lastmile_nyc volunteers, we were able to place our first order of N95 masks, writes Goh in a recent Instagram post on her personal page. “The shipment arrived in New York last week and over the weekend, volunteers such as @troprouge and @mcarthurjoseph successfully delivered the first shipment to healthcare heroes through New York and New Jersey.”
Today, The Mask Fund’s core team, write Goh and Urbano, is comprised of a “community of creatives” with a mission to “make a difference for healthcare professionals fighting an invisible war on the frontline.”
A difference arguably, is needed now, perhaps more than ever.
Now, Goh and Urbano’s response to the crisis, although not unique, is a move content creators would be foolish not to pay heed to. In an industry crowded by countless players all under the watchful eye of their followers, the bones of their personal brands are, fundamentally, considered fragile—even in the best of times. Now, in the era of COVID-19, with the actions of public figures more magnified than ever, many influencers have quickly seen their images being called into question.
In a recent article published by WIRED, author Flora Tsapovsky details the controversy surrounding mega-influencers like Arielle Charnas, who “found herself facing backlash after it seemed her status helped get her a COVID-19 test.” Just eight days after testing positive for the illness, and then announcing the news to her following of 1.3 million, Charnas “found her influence further diminished when she and her family headed to the Hamptons.”
The very next day, according to an article published by The New York Times, Charnas “posted a photo of herself and her daughter strolling around the neighborhood.” When people reacted negatively, Charnas turned off commenting on the post.
Although Charnas offered a lengthy apology on Instagram, it seemed many of her followers were not moved. Following the post made on April 2, Charnas took a break from Instagram, going silent for over three weeks until this past weekend, when she updated her fans on her time away “to reflect and be with family.”
Then, there are other prominent names, like 27-year-old entrepreneur Danielle Bernstein of We Wore What, Bernstein’s personal style platform of over 2.4 million followers, who are making a case for sensitivity over self-interest. While Bernstein has certainly not shied away from her native, “outfit of the day” content strategy, the influencer has also shown a remarkable display of responsibility in response to the current crisis.
Recently, Bernstein announced on Instagram that she would be donating 10,000 masks to protect frontline staff working in NYC hospitals. Bernstein stated she herself would pre-pay for the masks, partnering with anesthesiologist-led nonprofit, Mask A Hero, and even making the effort of updating her followers on when each shipment would be delivered.
Bernstein, also the founder of Shop We Wore What, an online shop featuring the influencer’s own designer collections, is also finding creative ways to benefit her community during what is a difficult time for most. On Instagram, Bernstein announced a one-day fundraiser through Shop We Wore What, pledging to donate all proceeds of her line drawn coloring book to Food Bank for New York City.
What resulted was a crowdfunding success of massive proportions. In just four minutes, according to an Instagram story posted by Bernstein, her customers had raised over $10,000 in proceeds from sales of the book and a select few other items—surpassing Bernstein’s initial fundraising goal. All told, in the 24-hour period, Bernstein was able to raise $20,000 for Food Bank For New York City.
These charitable milestones, the first of many to follow for Bernstein, would, evidently, be the impetus for a larger mission set forth by the influencer. In a highly anticipated IGTV post uploaded to We Wore What’s Instagram page on May 1, Bernstein announced the launch of her nonprofit platform, We Gave What.
“Over the past two months, I’ve been so inspired by my community – your stories, your commitment to helping one another, and to giving back,” writes Bernstein in the post. “Because of you, we’ve been able to make a tangible difference … All this started as a response to COVID-19 but it won’t end once the pandemic is over.”
As of May 3, just two days after the post, Bernstein had already seen 100,000 views on the post and thousands of followers to We Gave What’s newly created Instagram page. This engagement metric, an exceptional one to all those with marketing savvy, is also something of a digital barometer; a barometer marking the significant shifts in both influencer and consumer behavior in the era of COVID-19.
Like Bernstein, Laurie Ferraro, a Canadian-born digital content creator now based in New York City, is using her platform for greater purpose in the era of COVID-19. On behalf of New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, Ferraro teamed up with creative advertising agency, DeVito/Verdi, and nonprofit organization, The Partnership For New York City, for a large-scale campaign to help #StopTheSpread of COVID-19.
Bringing levity to her community in a time of crisis, Ferraro captions her post for the campaign, saying, “I know being stuck at home is hard, but right now we have to remind ourselves that it’s ok if we’re overeating or under-showering … For the sake of everyone, especially our healthcare workers, we just have to #StayHome.”
It’s evident that Ferraro’s acts of advocacy, and Goh, Urbano and Bernstein’s call for charity, is perhaps the greatest lesson the next generation of digital influencers could ever ask for. Challenged by crisis that threatens to upend their very presence, these creative thought leaders are bolstering their platform for a purpose well beyond the material, making the case for a more authentic—and nimble—influencer voice. And now, at an unprecedented scale, they just might influence the way we view all their place in the world.
© Featured image created by Christina Cardona (@troprouge)
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