3 minute read

What PRs can learn from Fyre Festival

If you are social media savvy, live in North America or are under the age of 25, you may have already heard of the catastrophe that was Fyre Festival. Or if, like me, you have been doing Dry January, you may have discovered it through the documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, which recently aired on Netflix.

The festival, ‘organised’ by Magnesis entrepreneur, Billy McFarland, and rapper, Ja Rule, saw the first few waves of its guests greeted with wet mattresses, battered hurricane tents and perhaps the most retweeted cheese sandwiches on Twitter as they touched down on Exuma Island. The festival – which cost up to $100,000 for a ticket – was cancelled as people were still landing, just as the news was also circulating amongst locals that their tireless work for the past month was to go unpaid. A true crisis situation, and one that it was difficult to watch unfold.

So, what justified so many people to part with such huge amounts of money? The ‘success’ of the ticket sales can be almost totally attributed to a clever marketing campaign which targeted followers of a number of social media influencers. Kendall Jenner was reportedly paid $250,000 for a single Instagram post about the festival, described by McFarland as ‘a pipe dream for your average loser’. Charming. This, combined with posts from 400 other bastions of pop culture like Bella Hadid, created an excitement around the event, which crafted a narrative of transcending your normal life to party with stars in paradisal surrounding. The social media posts, complete with the hashtag #FyreFestival, garnered over 300 million impressions in the first 24 hours of their release.

However, behind the scenes, organisers were scrambling to make the event an actuality, having been kicked off the original island and encountering a huge number of obstacles. An almost incalculable number of bad decisions were made including 14 days before festival, when partygoers were asked to pre-load money to a digital wristband which would be used as a ‘wallet for the weekend’ to try and plug the growing cash deficit organisers were facing. It’s unlikely that this technology even existed.

To me, this really highlighted the difference between marketing and PR campaigns, as well as the dangers of using social media endorsements from influencers. At their most basic level, PR is based around earning endorsements from trusted sources and marketing, which is perhaps more direct, is bought. However, in the case of Fyre Festival, it seems that one was masquerading as the other and people were led to believe that these influencers were choosing to hype up this event, without knowing that they had been paid to.

What can we learn from Fyre Festival?

After watching this absolute mess of an event – which I totally recommend doing – here are its four key takeaways for business education PRs:

  • Influencer marketing works for the millennial demographic, so find the right spokespeople to engage a younger audience
  • Saying ‘sorry’ causes less of a media backlash than covering up a problem – admit your mistakes and own them
  • PRs need transparency to work efficiently, we can’t tell half a story. Always push for info and be confident enough to advise when something is a bad idea
  • No matter how hard we try, PRs can’t solve organisational problems – we’re not there to cover up or put a spin on something, but to promote good and meaningful parts of a company

The worst PR of all

Ironically enough, although he tried endlessly to avoid bad PR, McFarland’s face ended up plastered all over Netflix, which is perhaps one of the biggest platforms of them all. This is also demonstrated by the surprising fact that another of its currently trending series, the creepily addictive ‘You’, was barely watched when it first aired on Lifetime, garnering 650,000 viewers per episode. The statistics on Netflix are closer to 40 million. A thought that won’t be of comfort to silly Billy.

And, in case you’re wondering, Billy McFarland is currently serving a six-year sentence for defrauding investors of $27.5 million.

He owes a huge amount more money than that, including $50,000 to local restaurant owner, Maryann Rolle, who catered for many of the festival-goers. He also owes $150,000 to a close colleague, whose personal credit card he used.

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