Trouble in Paradise

I found the cover story in New York magazine today to be particularly interesting. In summary, it’s about a Facebook scandal that has swept the community of Horace Mann School, a highfalutin bastion of wealth, power … and, I guess, education.  Many of the school’s attendees are offspring of some of the power powerful leaders in business, politics and entertainment (progeny of Sean “Diddy” Combs, Kenneth Cole and (ahem) Eliot Spitzer hang their lunchboxes there) and, apparently, they aren’t overly discrete with their participation in Facebook.

Over the past few years, students have developed little nuclear families (derelict as they may be) on social networks for the purposes of mocking teachers and other students, and for spreading vicious, sometimes raunchy rumors.  When the school’s administration found out about the groups, they were forced to take action—but what action to take? The scandal raised questions about privacy online and about what constitutions a business, inasmuch as a business can take action against “rogue” employees.

For Horace Mann, says alumnus William Barr, the U.S. attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, the school has become “too much of a business … so the influence of the business community becomes very strong. It’s a symbiotic relationship. But in the long run, the school loses something.”

Another thing the school lost was trust between its teachers and students—a relationship that can easily be likened to that between a manager and his/her employees.  When teachers found out about the hate groups created in their “honor,” they too logged on to survey the scene, sometimes doing so surreptitiously. Then, the board—comprised of parents, and perhaps more powerful than a corporate board at any Fortune 500 company—jumped into to criticize faculty for viewing their children’s profiles … and so on.

Really, this story is a perfect case study in the power of digital communications platforms to destroy reputations and relationships. And the same PR rules apply—namely, that of transparency.

By Courtney Barnes