Marketers Rushing to Haiti's Aid Hit Twit-Storm of Misinformation

But Texting's Ubiquity, Ease Now Becomes 'New Paradigm in Philanthropy'

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CHICAGO ( -- Marketers, be careful what you give -- and how you communicate that gift.

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, Kraft, AT&T, UPS and others engaged in a well-meaning one-upsmanship of cash gifts, in-kind donations and matching programs to provide assistance in the country's hour of need. But in some cases, consumers inflated the marketers' generosity and, in others, spread misinformation about their gestures, forcing some well-intentioned brands to explain and adjust their goodwill strategies.

For example, UPS, which announced one of the more-ambitious donation programs -- $1 million in cash and in-kind donations to relief organizations -- was surprised to hear via Twitter that it was also offering free shipping to Haiti for any box with a postage fee of $50 or less.

American Airlines offered extra bonus miles for consumers making donations to Haiti, 250 miles for a $50 gift, or 500 miles for a $100 gift. American Eagle also sent planes on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with 30,000 pounds of water, food and supplies each day. But many Twitter users believed the airline was flying doctors and nurses to Haiti free. That left the company scrambling to set the record straight by telling its nearly 23,000 followers free flights weren't on the table -- which ran the risk of diminishing its original generous offer.

Like American, UPS used the same social media that helped spread the fire to put it out. "I'm so glad we've been working on our social-media strategy," said UPS spokeswoman Ronna Branch. "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."

Unfair punishment
"It's a terrible crisis, but a time when companies can step forward and build their brand as being as helpful as possible," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. "But you've got to be sincere, and you've got to be quick so that what is said is consistent with what you're actually planning to do."

One marketer was even penalized for being too swift with its gesture. AT&T was quick with an offer to let people text in donations that would be billed later to their accounts. But when the other carriers launched the same offer the following day, AT&T's message got lost, leading many Twitters to jump to the conclusion AT&T wasn't participating and vent their ill-targeted frustration via social media. The confusion eventually subsided, and AT&T spokesman Steven Schwadron, citing mGive numbers, said that consumers had texted $9 million to Haiti by Thursday evening. More than $4.2million of it was from AT&T customers.

Coca-Cola and Nestle Waters North America each pledged $1 million in bottled water and other beverages. Alcoholic-beverage giant Diageo committed to airlifting 45,000 pounds of medical supplies and other non-perishables. American Eagle took 90,000 pounds of supplies over a three-day period.

In some cases, what initially seemed like a generous donation was usurped by higher ones from competitors as word spread on social networks. Wells Fargo was one of the first financial institutions to step forward with a gift of $100,000. But as the death toll rose, Citigroup pledged $2 million. Chase, Morgan Stanley, Jeffries and Bank of America all ponied up $1 million. And in addition to its $1 million donation, Jeffries donated all net commissions Friday. Including volunteered salaries from the firm's 2,500 employees, the firm expects to raise $5 million.

Sufficient size
"You want to make sure that your gift is comparable with others, or greater," Mr. Calkins said. "But you certainly don't want to put out something that's too cheap, because that can go the other way." That's particularly dangerous for banks, which are expected to begin reporting record 2009 bonuses this week.

Kraft also deftly upped the ante as the week went by, starting with a $25,000 donation, and following up with what's expected to be $500,000 from the company's foundation and an employee match. Most other package-food companies finished the week with a $250,000 donation and matching pledges, or less.

Some marketers found a way to help Haiti and save money in the process. Cash-strapped United Airlines, which recently emerged from bankruptcy, gave $50,000 from its foundation, but allowed consumers to donate their miles. Hilton, through its Hilton Honors program, will give $25 for every 10,000 loyalty points returned, or roughly for every $1,000 spent. While that valuation is easy to criticize, a Hilton spokesman said "there's been great feedback to the program so far."

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Contributing: Andrew Hampp

Let's talk about text

It took less than 36 hours for the Red Cross' Haiti donation-by-text campaign to gain mass-media exposure and raise $4 million, $10 at a time, making it by far the most successful texting fundraiser. As of late Friday, Jan. 15, the total generated by the program had reached $10 million.

Carrie Housman, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said the relief organization was surprised about the viral groundswell, and relayed a story about a 10-year-old girl who called headquarters looking to help after texting a donation.

"We don't have 10-year-old donors on a regular basis," Ms. Housman admitted. "It's gone so viral. We didn't anticipate being a trending topic on Twitter. Within 12 hours of it hitting, we were all over the place. ... It's unprecedented for our mobile campaigns."

Why such an extraordinary amount of donations made to the Haiti relief effort in such a short period of time? Experts say it's because texting is ubiquitous and easy.

"This is the new paradigm in philanthropy," said Jeffrey Nelson, executive director for corporate communications at Verizon Wireless. He cited the popularity of texting among all demographics. "It's no longer a niche product for 12-year-olds," he said. Social media and a growing level of comfort among consumers using mobile devices for financial transactions have also helped. As of Friday afternoon, Mr. Nelson said more than 300,000 Verizon Wireless customers had donated nearly $3 million to the effort.

Crystal Davis, crisis-communications manager for Sprint, said the carrier's customers had raised $1.3 million as of Friday afternoon, and credits the outpouring of financial support to the simplicity of texting. "People don't have to go to their computers or mail a check," Ms. Davis said. "This disaster resonates across all generations, and texting a donation is easy to do."

Some believe this to be a turning point in the evolution of fundraising. "This is bigger than anything that had occurred previously in terms of developing the mobile channel as an alternative to the conventional method of making donations," said David Diggs, VP-wireless internet development for CTIA -- the Wireless Association.

But in today's world, no good deed goes unbashed. Some of the chatter online has focused on the fact that it could take as long as 90 days for the texted donations to get to the intended relief organization due to billing cycles. "That narrative detracts from the fact that 100% of that money goes through, whereas if you made it with a credit card, the credit-card company would take a slice of that donation," Mr. Diggs said.

Late Friday Verizon Wireless said it would circumvent the 90-day issue and immediately send a check for $3 million to the Red Cross. "We are bypassing our normal financing accounting and checks and balances," Verizon's Mr. Nelson said.

--Michael Bush and Natalie Zmuda

Marketers making a difference, by industry

MTV will present a global "Hope for Haiti" telethon this Friday to be broadcast on ABC. CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, HBO, BET, the CW, MTV, VH1 and CMT. Facebook and MySpace have signed on as social-media partners.

Microsoft has made a $1.25 million initial commitment, and will also match U.S.-based employee contributions, up to $12,000 per person. Yahoo is driving consumers to donate at a relief-organization website. The company will match gifts from full-time U.S. employees, up to $1,000. Go Daddy donated $500,000. Google donated $1 million.

The Ad Council created a TV spot featuring Michelle Obama that encourages Americans to participate in relief efforts.

Nestle Waters North America and Coca-Cola each pledged $1 million in bottled water and other beverages. McDonald'swill donate up to $1 million, including an employee match. Yum Brands will also donate up to $1 million.

Target will donate $500,000 and is coordinating an effort to assemble 1 million meals. Walmart will donate $600,000 in cash and supplies. Foot Solutions Stores, on behalf of Soles4Soles, is collecting gently used footwear.

United is allowing consumers to donate their miles, American is offering bonus miles in exchange for donations, and airlifting supplies on American Eagle. JetBlue was establishing the means to offer free travel for vetted nonprofit organizations and officials that are working in tandem with the Haitian consulate.

The Harlem Globetrotters will donate proceeds of their Jan. 22 game to Unicef. Major League Baseball also donated $1 million to earthquake relief.

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