Disastrous PR: When Fyre Was On Fire

What Is Fyre?

Photo Credit: Thought Catalog

Photo Credit: Thought Catalog

What’s trending on Netflix right now? Right now, the buzz is actually on a documentary (well, actually TWO documentaries) about an event that (sort of) happened in 2017: the Fyre Festival. The whole time I was just amazed at how a (simple) effective PR campaign drove so many people to a weekend of hell. Some people are like, “This is some Jim Jones shit.” I can’t say that I totally disagree.

Basically, Ja Rule and “rich entrepreneur” guy Billy McFarland decided to create a music festival to create some hype for a booking app McFarland was the brainchild for. Through an aggressive influencer campaign that included huge names, such as Kylie Jenner, they successfully sold out the show. The problem? There WAS no festival to be found. The logistics were constantly in flux due to a series of faux pas, lies, and unmet funding. In the end, McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison and holds a lifetime ban from being in a director or corporate officer position.

Why Did This Stunt Work?

From a PR standpoint, Fyre did everything right…except for the execution.

See the timeline here.

Photo Credit: The Verge

Photo Credit: The Verge

What does any good company do to promote their work? They produce content! While it may seem like you are getting “a look into the process”, what users are seeing is actually a carefully curated image of the process that may not have even been created by the company being featured. There are entities, like entire agencies, whose job is to create promotional content for events, brands, and products, who may never actually experience the promoted idea. That’s the point though. They’re selling to you, and they’re selling an idea. They were hired to sell the user a fantasy, and that’s what Fyre did. All it took was an excellent influencer campaign, and they’d sold that idea out.

The Power of the Influencer

Influencers are gatekeepers on and off social media. From demos to modeling, these individuals control the reputation of brands using their smartphones. This has become increasingly true for younger consumers who prefer to understand a product’s affiliations and qualities before using it.

If a Kardashian says a product they’re using is eco-friendly, that automatically brings in a new set of consumers for the company. While many people see influencers as a dying breed, it’s clear from social use that they’re just as active as ever, with brands ranging from children’s products to luxury utilizing them. While people claim that the time of the influencer is nearing an end, I can’t say that I necessarily agree. Influencers come in many forms, and as long as people create content that is relevant and exciting, users will flock to them and look to them for ideas for their own lives. Influencers have pinpointed what makes them popular, whether it’s a vicarious effort to reach our personal goals or the need to be part of something bigger than ourselves (like a fandom).

A very active counter-account, also mentioned on Netflix’s documentary about Fyre

A very active counter-account, also mentioned on Netflix’s documentary about Fyre

In a time where stock photos and videos are easily accessible and content is so easily staged, it’s not hard to imagine that they could have gone as far as to create false transparency into the process when users complained about not understanding/knowing what was going on. When counter-accounts began, they could have easily ramped up their fraud-game. The fact that they used original content, while edited and recycled, makes me think that the fraud was (in the beginning) unintentional, but it still happened and really harmed those that fell for it.

Looking back, it is easy to see the red flags, but what caused people to wear rose-colored glasses and miss those flags?

In the ever-moving world of social media, people are looking to experience their next big thing. They want to take selfies of themselves that project who they want to be, doing amazing things surrounded by amazing people. This is possibly why younger audiences prefer experiences over material items nowadays. This is also why we have people getting extreme anxiety from seeing others experiencing amazing things without us. This FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is a huge driver in getting people to events, and it’s what makes exclusivity a hot selling point for these socially driven audiences. Influencers are a huge part of this, as they create these fictitious worlds that users WANT to be part of all from the positioning of their bodies and products in a square photo.

Exclusivity As A Selling Point

Fyre promised to be THE EVENT of the decade. People saw exciting footage featuring small planes, incredible scenery (above and underwater), and beautiful people partying it up to supposedly good music. They were promised amazing lodging in a once-in-a-lifetime setting, from beautiful beach villas to simple (yet boho-chic) tents for the simpler lounger. The experience was guaranteed by media outlets and Fyre reps (“Fyre Starters”) to be amazing, and the attendees had the added benefit of being on the front lines of establishing this promising new experience as THE festival. People were even choosing it over Coachella.

Models, who are nothing more than extremely beautiful people, lured THOUSANDS of users into this phenomenon. Let that sink in. At the direction of people who are hired as clever product placement, people dropped thousands of dollars for a debuting festival supposedly in the middle of nowhere. Those models, as shown in the documentary on Netflix, had no idea what they were promoting. It was a big photoshoot party at the direction of directionless people. Users seeing these posts didn’t question the logistics, they just wanted to play with cute piglets on sunny beaches and beautiful people. That’s the IDEA: “Put yourself here with Bella Hadid for a few grand.” THIS is the power of the influencer ^^.

Ethical Use of PR

During the documentaries, "PR” got thrown around a lot. People in charge, who were not trained in PR, made a lot of decisions based on their limited understanding of PR. Let me set this straight: incidents like this are the content of my nightmares. As a PR practitioner, a content curator, and a decent person, it is my job to be as involved with client operations as possible. This is proof for people utilizing PR entities that when your PR people are “in your business” that it isn’t just for your protection but for theirs as well. There are people who were involved with Fyre in a working capacity that owe TONS of money to entities that they never shook hands with. They were made promises that fell through, and they were given the fall to take. As a matter of fact, some of McFarland’s employees were also given limitations on serving in director and executive roles in addition to fines (and could still face jail time from future lawsuit proceedings).

Don’t be fooled, even if you are not familiar with the inner workings of PR. A good practitioner would have heeded the words of the worried employees, the budget lines, and the questionable paperwork. It’s part of the job to be a jack of many trades and to recognize a failing or limitation when you see it. Ja Rule and Billy McFarland are not effective PR people just because they GOT publicity. Earning publicity is simply a facet of the job. They were simply excellent orators surrounded by sycophants and terrified employees with a vision that was too big too soon. THAT is not effective PR.

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The Crash

The irony of the situation, though, is that the festival was effectively ruined for the rest of the world with one tweet. The tweet, featuring a cheese sandwich and a simple salad, SHATTERED the idea being sold to the public. I would like to also add that this “experiential” photo was much more effective than any other social media-led initiative to disprove the authenticity of the festival, further proving the efficacy of influencer culture. That bit of unearned publicity, a single tweet, is all it took to create a firestorm (haha) of hashtags decrying the event as a sham and an echo of online ridicule from users satisfied that “rich people got trolled”.

As I watched the documentary on Netflix, I found myself remarkably unsurprised to find so many former employees, attendants, and investors so ready to throw organizers under the bus. Interviews have been plentiful, informational, and certainly not coerced, which is a side effect from poor PR and management. Effective PR would have created much better relationships with those people and left this documentary much more mysterious, because that’s what the job actually is. Anyone claiming to be a public relations practitioner who isn’t managing your brand’s relationships is simply a publicist.

However, I am pleased to use this unfortunate event as another reminder for my comrades in the field to always practice ethical PR, because while it takes a lot to build your reputation, it only takes one negative tweet at the right time for it to all come crashing down.