Lasting PR Lessons From a Musical Festival that Never Even Took Place

The story of Fyre Festival and its implications for the public relations industry.

Hulu and Netflix released competing documentaries this past week on the ill-fated 2017 Fyre Festival, creating the perfect weekend binge-watch scenario. Much more interesting than how the two streaming giants ended up delivering essentially the exact same documentary within 48 hours of each other, however, is the story of Fyre Festival itself — and all of its implications for the public relations industry.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Fyre Festival was a music festival originally conceived as a marketing stunt for the Fyre Media app. Promotional concerts aren’t a new idea, and many brands engage with consumers through existing music events like Coachella, SXSW and Bonnaroo. But Fyre ambitiously set out to create its own uber-luxurious music festival on a secluded island in the Bahamas. Partnering with marketing agencies and social media firms to help create the festival’s brand, Fyre created gorgeous promotional materials and paid for some of the world’s most recognizable models and social influencers — Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Emily Ratajkowski and Hailey Baldwin, among others — to create an online buzz unprecedented for a music concert in its first year. The event sold out in days, with hundreds of concert-goers paying thousands and thousands of dollars for what they believed would be a high-end musical experience replete with Victoria’s Secret models.

The whole thing was a fraud, masterminded by Billy McFarland who is now serving six years in federal prison. (Side note: His business partner in the whole venture was Ja Rule and I would have loved the documentaries to tell us more about the fallout he experienced.) The actual event collapsed without a single musical act performing, leaving guests trapped on a Bahamian island with no food and no water and fighting like Lord of the Flies characters for FEMA tents and toilet paper. And most importantly, it uncovered important ethical questions around the way brands use social influencers.

Why It Matters

  • Traditional channels of communication — like radio and TV — have given way to new platforms that hold the world’s attention. Facebook has approximately 2 billion active users worldwide. Instagram sees more than 100 million users each month.
  • Our latest generational fascination, GenZ, is being raised in a digital world. They use YouTube and Reddit to find answers to their questions and communicate with friends using Snapchat and Instagram stories. They stream their music and TV shows instead of using radio or basic cable.
  • Today’s consumers are influenced not just by traditional music and athletic celebrities, but by YouTube and Twitch streamers who command audiences in the millions.
  • As a result, brands are moving traditional advertising dollars to these new platforms — which is still a bit of a wild west when it comes to both rates and rules.

Clyde Group Insights

  • For consumers — When it comes to social media, adhere to the old adage of buyers beware. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. If a Twitch streamer or YouTuber can’t stop raving about a new [insert any brand here] mouse or headset, it is very likely she or he is being paid for that endorsement. If every celebrity you know is coincidentally talking about, say, a brand new music festival on their social channels on the exact same day, there’s probably a marketing effort behind it.
  • For social influencers — The shift from using social media to being popular enough to have a brand pay you for a post is a big deal and you should be proud of the work you’ve done to earn that payday. But do your due diligence before accepting a check from just anyone. Do you like the brand? Is it reflective of your own? Have you looked into other individuals associated with it to make sure they’re the type of people you want to be aligned with? Saying no to an opportunity may mean less money in the short term, but more control of your brand in the long run.
  • For brands — Just because there are fewer regulations around social media influencers (for now) doesn’t mean you should throw best marketing practices out the window. Transparency and authenticity should be central in all your communication efforts, including social influencer campaigns. Consumers and influencers will be unforgiving if you’re caught in a lie, and the FTC is spending more resources to crack down on brands and influencers violating the endorsement guidelines.