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

It’s a Small World After All

You’d think that, with all the writing I do about digital communications platforms, I wouldn’t be surprised by the degree of connectivity enabled by the Internet. Well, call me old-fashioned (I’m probably the only person of my generation who still insists on keeping a non-digital day planner so I can hand-write all of my appointments—and forget trying to find me on Facebook), but it wasn’t until this past weekend that I became a believer.

I’ve been traveling all over creation, from London last week to Germany over the weekend for a wedding, and soon to San Francisco for the Bulldog Reporter Conference. I was concerned that it would be difficult to conduct business as usual, be it writing PR News to updating our Web site, to communicating with my designer for the soon-to-be-published PR News Best Practices in PR Measurement guidebook.

Well, I’m five days into my travels, and (knock on wood) things have gone off without a hitch. I can access our internal server from a village in East Germany, and, thanks to some crazy cell phone forwarding, I can receive calls from the U.S.—and the caller only has to dial my regular American number, no long distance charges required (don’t ask me how that one works). As for being in airports … I might as well be sitting in my cubicle, there’s so much access.

Anyway, I just thought I’d tip my proverbial hat to the power of digital communications, as it seems to offer a solution for just about everything—except jetlag, that is …

By Courtney Barnes

Something To Blog Home About

So, I virtually disappeared from the blogosphere in the last 10 days—between traveling to PR News’ CSR Awards in Washington, D.C. and all the other exciting stuff going on at PR News, I inadvertently neglected my favorite cyber commitment.  But, I’m back with some very exciting news: Together with Tuck School of Business Professor Paul Argenti, I am writing a book for McGraw-Hill on digital communications platforms and corporate branding.  While Paul is a seasoned pro at business book writing, this is my first (of what I hope will be many) book deals, and I couldn’t be more excited.

While the (still untitled) book won’t be published until 2009, the work begins … well, yesterday.  I will chronicle my book-writing experience here, and my research and interviews with executives around the world will definitely provide fodder for future PR News articles.  In the meantime, if anyone has any insight into what I’m sure will be a challenging process, please enlighten me.  Paul has already warned me that I don’t know what I’m in for, but I say: Bring it on.

By Courtney Barnes

Eliot Spitzer’s Accidental Beneficiary?

The scandal surrounding Eliot Spitzer has been a crescendo of drama whose denouement came yesterday with his decidedly unceremonial resignation. But, the aftermath of his exit has shifted the spotlight to one non-celebrity who, at first glance, may appear to be the victim of unrequited PR, but who in reality may become a beneficiary of Spitzer’s indiscretions.

Ashley Alexandra Dupré is a 22-year-old aspiring singer who, until yesterday, was another random face in a crowd.  But, having been identified as the escort with whom Spitzer met in Washington, her name, personal photographs and MySpace page have been splashed across front pages across the country.

Now, what I’m about to suggest isn’t to say that I’m overlooking the humiliation and degradation involved with being “that girl” that torpedoed Spitzer’s political career—especially when Spitzer himself is the only one to blame.  But, for a girl whose MySpace profile says “But, my path has not been easy … I have been alone. I have abused drugs. I have been broke and homeless. But, I survived, on my own. I am here, in NY because of my music…I’m still here and I love who I am. If I never went through the hard times, I would not be able to appreciate the good ones”—well, it sounds like she’s at least resilient, and very interested in getting her name out there.

And, isn’t that last sentence in her above statement is drenched in irony? For her, at least outwardly, this is a hard time, but I predict that it will quickly lead to “good ones.” Forget needing to find an agent, a record label or a spotlight; now, everyone is swarming to her.  It’s almost like she slipped and fell into the public eye, which (as her MySpace profile indicates) is exactly where she wants to be. Again, I’m not suggesting that she wanted her prostitution to be the catalyst for fame, but history indicates that, at least in the entertainment world, salacious gossip is the ultimate primer for a spot on a reality show, if nothing else. It’s just a matter of whether or not she is able to shift public judgment of her personal decisions to judgment of her singing abilities. Stay tuned …

Another One Bites the Dust

Not that this should come as any surprise, but yet another politician has been linked to some amoral extracurricular activities—and this time, said activities fell on the wrong side of the law. New York Governor Eliot Spitzer will upstage his fellow politicos as this week’s biggest news story (and it doesn’t have anything to do with the presidential race!) with the announcement that he was involved in a prostitution ring.  Nice.
Of course, adultery runs rampant in the political sphere (didn’t McCain just get accused of having relations with a lobbyist?), but shame on Eliot for breaching more than just his marital pact by paying for the rendezvous.  There is little his PR team can do to mitigate this crisis; many people are speculating that he’ll step down as early as tonight to avoid the inevitable backslide. At least he came out and apologized, though, instead of denying it or acting like the victim of a vicious rumor.
This is barely relevant, but it’s an interesting side note: I actually received a call from Eliot back in September, when I was profiling a good friend of his from his Harvard days for PR News’ sister publication, min magazine. He graciously called me after I sarcastically suggested to my interviewee that I’d get major kudos if I could get a quote from the Governor in the story. We chatted for about 10 minutes, during which time he seemed like a genuine, stand-up kind of guy. But, shame on me for being so naïve.  After all, he is a lawyer … and a politician…

By Courtney Barnes

Confusion Loves Company

Yesterday, PR News and Medialink co-hosted a roundtable on video 2.0 communications strategies, and the select group of professionals in attendance had some incredible insights into the world of online video. The group of companies in attendance was eclectic—Goodwill Industries, Disneyland Resorts and Patton Boggs LLP, just to name a few—but there were a few threads that consistently weaved their way through the two hour conversation: the need for authenticity, the need to be completely in touch with your brand and its target audiences, and the fact that no one has the answers.

That’s right: that last point was both a blessing and a curse for the executives around the table—a curse because a lack of answers creates the feeling of anarchy, and a blessing because no one, no matter the size of their organization (or their budget), seemed to know enough to completely outpace the others.

For complete coverage of the roundtable, including the ideas and best practices that surfaced, look out for the March 10 issue of PR News. In the meantime, though, chew on this: The most pleasant surprise that the attendees voiced wasn’t necessarily the strategies that were offered up (though those were certainly welcomed); it was the fact that, after two hours of open conversation, each realized that he/she wasn’t alone on the Web video front. Apparently when it comes to online communications, two is company, and any more than that is even better.

By Courtney Barnes

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