Confusion Over Marketers' Haiti Relief Donations Goes Viral

American Airlines, UPS Use Social Media to Separate Fact From Fiction in Their Charitable Efforts

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CHICAGO ( -- As marketers scrambled to assemble donations and matching programs for relief in Haiti, Twitter users began scrambling their announcements. By this morning, the airwaves were so flooded with news about who was making a donation, and how to participate, that consumers became understandably confused -- and it spread.

Credit: AP
American Airlines and UPS became victims of their own benevolence, as consumers came up with relief efforts that sounded more fitting. UPS, which announced one of the more ambitious donation programs -- $500,000 in cash and $500,000 worth of in-kind donations to UNICEF, the American Red Cross, CARE and other relief organizations -- soon heard that it was also offering free shipping to Haiti for any box with a postage fee of $50 or less.

As for how that rumor got started, spokeswoman Ronna Branch said, "I'm not sure. I've been trying to figure that out." Ms. Branch suspects that the "in-kind" portion of the company's donation left consumers confused. Of course, UPS was referring to services such as transportation for the agencies to which the company is providing aid -- not individual packages. The confusion, Ms. Branch said, "doesn't take away from the urgency we see in Haiti and our commitment to help people get back on their feet as soon as possible."

And while social media helped start the fire, Ms. Branch said it helped UPS put it out, too. "I'm so glad we've been working on our social-media strategy," she said, adding that the company just started a blog in November. "It's been quite beneficial today that we've been able to communicate with consumers. We're posting on Twitter, and people are using Facebook to repost, and we can direct them to the blog where we can communicate."

Awkward situation
American announced that consumers donating at least $50 to the American Red Cross by Feb. 28 could earn 250 frequent-flier miles, or 500 miles for a donation of $100 or more. In addition to free American miles for consumers, three American Eagle planes yesterday brought 30,000 pounds of water, food and other nonperishable goods to Haiti. Three more missions are planned for today and three more for tomorrow.

American Airlines will award frequent-flier miles to consumers who donate to the American Red Cross.
American Airlines will award frequent-flier miles to consumers who donate to the American Red Cross.
But news spread on Twitter that American was offering free travel to doctors and nurses wanting to help out in Haiti. The company was then forced to announce to its nearly 23,000 followers that free flights weren't on the table. But the rumor persisted.

"It was misinformation that got picked up, and we got information back out on Twitter saying that it wasn't the case," an American spokeswoman said of the incident. "We told people that we are coordinating with the Red Cross and other relief organizations and asking people to donate."

On the other hand, some marketers who made offers weren't able to get through the clutter -- and angry consumers found fault. A cadre of AT&T consumers tweeted and re-tweeted frustration that their wireless carrier wasn't following the rest of the industry in offering free text messaging for those making donations to Haitian relief.

"We tweeted that our texting donations are free of fees, and they are," spokesman Steve Schwadron said. "The priority yesterday was to get mobile donations up and running as soon as possible. We obviously want to make it as easy as possible." As for how the confusion spread on Twitter, Mr. Schwadron said he didn't know. The company has additionally made a $50,000 commitment to Telecoms Sans Frontieres.

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Natalie Zmuda, Michael Learmonth, Rupal Parekh, Brian Steinberg and Nat Ives contributed to this report.

What marketers are doing

Below is a snapshot of the numerous marketers that have stepped forward to offer assistance in Haiti.

The company made an initial commitment of $1.25 million, including cash and in-kind contributions. Microsoft is also activating its disaster response team, calling for matching employee donations, working with impacted customers and partners and helping drive awareness for relief efforts through MSN and Bing.

Estimating that 2 million people in Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area are without potable drinking water, the company pledged $1 million in bottled water.

The Oak Brook, Ill.-based company will be donating up to $1 million, including an expected $500,000 match from Arcos Dorados, the company that operates nearly 1,700 McDonald's restaurants in Latin America.

Through Arcos Dorados, the company will also donate 50 cents if any Big Mac or Big Mac value menu purchased between January 16 and January 22 in the 19 Latin American companies where Arcos operates. The company estimates that those efforts will generate another $500,000.

$1 million in aid.

The company's charitable arm is donating $1 million to the American Red Cross efforts in Haiti, in addition to bottled water and other beverages. In a memo to employees dated Wednesday, the company said that it is awaiting news of the 850 people who work for bottling partner Brasserie de la Couronne.

The Abbott, Ill.-based company and its foundation have committed to $1 million in aid.

Will be donating up to $500,000 toward relief programs through its foundation. The sum includes an expected $100,000 employee match.

Will donate $500,000 in cash and $100,000 in supplies. The company has also launched a microsite for employee and consumer donations.

Donating $500,000 to Hope for Haiti.

On behalf of Soles4Souls, it's collecting gently used footwear at its 240 locations for distribution in Haiti.

Customers can make donations (free of charge) in $10 increments to the Red Cross by texting "HAITI" to 90999. Donations to Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti fund can be made by text messaging "YELE" to 501501 in $5 increments.

The package food company has pledged $250,000 for earthquake relief through its foundation.

Has committed $250,000 to the American Red Cross. The company has additionally asked employees and retirees to participate in a dollar-for-dollar match.

Has pledged $200,000 in donations, and is mounting an employee donation effort.

The Omaha-based company's foundation has pledged $100,000 to the International Red Cross Relief Fund.

Has established a microsite for donations to Mercy Corps.

Will give $250,000 to earthquake relief efforts. The company's agents will also waive transfer fees on money to Haiti from the U.S., Canada and France for the first week after service has been re-established.

Looking for ways to offer free travel for vetted non-profit organizations and officials that are working in tandem with the Haitian consulate.

Driving consumers to donation resources via web and mobile, including UNICEF banner ads going live Monday. In addition to a $25,000 emergency grant to UNICEF, Yahoo will match gifts from full-time U.S. employees, up to $1,000 per person.

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