The Haiti Tragedy: Why Is There Digital Silence?

Tragedies are capitalist conundrums.

Whenever the world is gripped by an unfolding disaster, American corporations wrestle with their response strategies.

Ignore it and you risk looking detached, or worse, callous. Particularly in an era when consumers expect big companies to make big gestures.

But splash it over your website and you run another risk -- coming across as grubby and opportunistic.

Public skepticism isn't what it used to be, though. Walmart's heroic response to Katrina, in comparison to FEMA's ineptitude, sparked excited commentary like this in the Washington Post:

" unrivaled $20 million in cash donations, 1,500 truckloads of free merchandise, food for 100,000 meals and the promise of a job for every one of its displaced workers -- has turned the chain into an unexpected lifeline for much of the Southeast and earned it near-universal praise at a time when the company is struggling to burnish its image."

So what has been the corporate response to the wrenching scenes out of Haiti? A quick scan of the websites of some of our most well-known brands indicates a surprising -- if not shocking -- minimalism.

It's nothing even close to the post-Katrina period, when website after website devoted their home pages to messages of shared sorrow and invitations to contribute to the relief programs.

The reason this is important to assess is that a company's website is a wide-open front door into its heart and soul. Visibility is strategy. Responsiveness is diagnostic. What's featured and what isn't featured -- and what the relative emphasis is -- speaks volumes.

And in our world of instant digital communication, in which websites can change in seconds, when a major American institution chooses to ignore a global catastrophe, without even a pro forma "Our hearts are with the people of Haiti" message, it makes you wonder about them.

• Let's start with our eleemosynary friends at Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, whose CEOs testified before a bi-partisan Congressional Committee on the financial crisis last week.

I don't know what their response was during Katrina. But today, when they should be scrambling for any shred of goodwill, their websites are completely silent about the devastation, not even an insey weensey "Contribute to Haiti" button. You'd think (hope?) one of their PR flaks would have said "Hey guys, let's burnish our brands a little while we're in the withering glare." But nothing. And the silence is devastating; they don't even care enough pretend.

Walmart hasn't given its Haiti efforts any dramatic home-page placement. There's just some small real estate below the fold that features a Red Cross logo and an invitation to "Join Walmart's efforts to support those in need."

Click on the link, though, and you come to a page dedicated to the company's efforts in Haiti. While not on a Katrina-like scale, they include a $400,000 monetary donation.

Target goes bigger than its rival Walmart on their home page - with a big horizontal banner that sits right under their logo and top navigation. Click on it and you come to a page that details "How Target is Helping" and "How You Can Help."

• Media companies are obviously following the story intently, and their websites show it. But while their newscasts continually direct viewers to organizations who are accepting donations, it's curious that their websites generally offer no opportunities for readers to contribute. Nor do they boast of their own philanthropic efforts; that's probably to be expected, given that media companies are experiencing their own metaphorical earthquakes.

NPR asks for donations, but PBS, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today don't. CNN is running a paid ad unit from a non-profit World Vision, asking for contributions. (Yikes, does that mean they are profiting from the earthquake?)

• Big consumer brands, usually quick to associate themselves with so-called CSR -- Corporate Social Responsibility -- efforts, are conspicuously mute.
Surprisingly, that includes Starbucks and Nike, two brands that usually chase down socially conscious opportunities wherever they find them. Their websites are acknowledgement-free zones.

The cone of silence extends to Coca-Cola, which is a fascinating case because their foundation donated a million bucks. But their website doesn't hint at that; it remains plushly dedicated to their "Open Happiness" message.

Clearly, they've resolved to keep their philanthropic and marketing efforts separate, perhaps deciding that the grim news out of Haiti would be inappropriate in juxtaposition to the bubbly promise of "Open Happiness". A perfect example of the Capitalist Conundrum.

As for Amazon, they yield some room above the fold, in the upper right portion of its homepage, asking for donations to "Mercy Corps to help victims of the Haiti earthquake."

• Most technology companies and telecom are too busy. IBM, HP, Verizon and Sony keep their mouths closed. Microsoft is an exception, with a message on the home page that links to an impressive page that notes the company has made an initial commitment of $1.25 million and that it has:

"... activated its Disaster Response Team. Through Microsoft's support, nonprofit partner NetHope has been able to set up an immediate response, with specific focus on establishing temporary telecommunications infrastructure to allow humanitarian agencies to communicate and provide relief to the affected victims."

Google and Apple, as you might expect, are also exceptions. Google's home page features a big link that reads "Information, resources, and ways you can help survivors of the Haiti earthquake."

The link takes you to a page that references Google's $1 million contribution, but is largely devoted to a range of contribution options, including Unicef and CARE, as well as organizations that only accept SMS donations.

Apple has a small message on their homepage, which takes to the iTunes store. There, the usual storefront is replaced an interruptive page which asks for donations to the Red Cross in amounts from $5 to $200, with all transactions processed through iTunes.

Lastly, the site for the Vatican makes no reference to the earthquake. (Note to Holy See webmaster: Time to take down "Christmas 2009" from your site messaging.)

Bottom line: compared to Katrina or the 2004 tsunami -- when the Internet was far less developed -- most of corporate America has chosen to leave Haiti unacknowledged on their websites. They've chosen not to leverage their digital presences; which means no opportunities to contribute, and certainly no efforts to use their databases or social media to rally support.

I don't know if it's disaster fatigue, or if the recession has downsized their digital departments, but our biggest companies have failed to rise even to the level of meretricious opportunism.