I wondered if amid the financial chaos, organisations in the spotlight have been using the web to tell us what is going on. The answer, in most cases, is no.

Which is a shame – the web is a noticeboard where you can post practical information. It is a handy reputation management device. And it is the first place very many of us will look when we hear or read about problems with an organisation. Why it is being largely ignored? Because perception lags reality: give it a few years, and it will used as it should be.

Bear Stearns has a home page announcement about the amended merger agreement with JP Morgan. Surrounding this is an unchanged set of links and promotions. Investment banks’ obsessions with awards has always seemed odd to me, but here the self-congratulation for “Best buy side innovation 2007” and “Energy Risks Deal of the year” is particularly incongruous.

It’s easy to say that the bank has better things to do than fiddle around with its website, but I would bet that visits to bearstearns.com rocketed when news of its troubles broke out.

What we might call core stakeholders – staff, key investors, key clients, financial journalists – would have their own channels. But for many others – would-be employees, relatives of employees, small shareholders, general journalists, the guy whose neighbour works for Bear Stearns, the contractor who cleans one of its offices – the website is the best or only place to get information. And they would find nothing. The investor relations intro page is headed “Never an unprofitable year”. The “Our firm’” section has the usual blah about being based on respect, integrity, meritocracy, etc. The Careers section is still busy encouraging people to join up. Japanese visitors visiting their own site (www.bearstearns.co.jp) will not find any changes at all to the home page – everything looks as it ever did.

Would it not make sense for the company to acknowledge that there are people out there who want to know what’s going on, and perhaps to offer practical advice? There is plenty of news about Bear Stearns on the web – not least on Wikipedia, which has been kept up to the minute by its diligent contributors (what do they do for a social life?). But they are not a primary source, and there a lot of things they will not know.

At some stage, presumably, JP Morgan Chase will take over responsibility for such things. It will be interesting to see if its decides to use its site to be a little more helpful.

Financial Guarantee Insurance Company, the bond insurer, has less dramatic problems but nevertheless attracts the adjective “troubled” and has been stripped of its triple-A rating. Its home page starts with a Rating section, so it cannot avoid telling us that it “remains on CreditWatch with negative implications”. But beyond that, no changes. The careers page says that “we are always looking for talented, motivated individuals to help us grow”. The investor relations page assures that “our financial strength, insured portfolio and a rigorous credit approach are the foundations of our success.”

Again it would take no great effort to make changes that give the site a consistent voice. And if it does not particularly want to attract individuals to help us grow (I’m guessing here), maybe it should not say it does.

In the UK, shockwaves from the Northern Rock débacle continue to rumble. The Financial Services Authority has just criticised itself over its handling of the affair, and has a straightforward home page link leading to a straightforward story on its site.

As I understand it the FSA would not expect to speak directly to the public, so this limited information is appropriate. The same is not however true of the Bank of England, which seems to be doing the bare minimum to keep us informed on its site. “Current highlights” on the home page has unhelpful headlines such as “Treasury committee - opening statement” and “Bank of England statement”. The eagle-eyed may spot a line under Quick Links, towards the bottom of the home page, labelled Northern Rock plc. This has a list of news releases and a handful of speeches, but nothing to help the depositor, borrower or onlooker find out what is going on.

This approach is odd, for two reasons. First, the story is so big that it cannot possibly be hidden by wrapping it in obscurity. Second, the Bank’s site is otherwise a model of accessibility, with crystal clear explanations of economics and the markets that show that it sees the public as very much a target audience.

But if the Bank of England is sweeping dirt under the carpet, Northern Rock seems to be brazening it out. “Crisis – what crisis?” its website says, plastering itself with exciting offers for savers. Actually there is crisis-linked content, but you have to go looking for it. Company Info, one of the links, leads to a separate site with brief but clear FAQs aimed at customers. Strange, though that the main home page does not acknowledge that there might be any difficult issues to address – as with the Bank of England, it cannot possibly think that playing them down will make them reduce.

Just one of the sites I looked at impressed me. The US Federal Reserve has a substantial Consumer Information section, and has been flagging its Foreclosure Resources for Consumers page for several months on its home page. This is a set of links – the Fed does not provide the information itself – but simply by linking to other sites it is providing them with the imprimatur they need to be credible. There are so many subtle ways to use a website – it’s just a matter of thinking about them a little.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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