The shocking story of the botched attempt to organise a new, luxury music festival in the Bahamas has gripped the nation thanks to a recently released documentary by Netflix.
Thousands of people paid thousands of dollars for Fyre Festival tickets after some of the world’s biggest influencers promoted it on social media. But the at-times jaw-dropping Netflix documentary shows the organiser, Billy McFarland, ignoring repeated warnings that the infrastructure was not in place to host the festivalgoers. When the guests arrived, they had to sleep in waterlogged hurricane relief tents.
Here are five things brands can learn from the Fyre Festival PR disaster:
1. Social media can make a brand …
McFarland and Fyre’s co-founder, rapper Ja Rule, threw everything into promoting the festival on social media. Influencers and models – including top names such as Bella Hadid and Kendal Jenner – were flown out to the Bahamas, and paid to post about it. They created an image of a paradise that simply did not exist, and it worked. It has been reported that 8,000 people bought tickets to the festival, although this was far below the 40,000 guests organisers were originally hoping for.
For new and emerging fashion brands, this shows how important it can be to have a well thought-through social media strategy. The right influencers can raise awareness among consumers. However, it is equally important to ensure influencer marketing campaigns are transparent: the Fyre influencers later came under fire for failing to disclose that they had been paid to promote the festival. Which brings us to our next point:
2. … it can also break it.
As soon as the festival goers realised they had been duped into forking out thousands of dollars on tickets to a festival that was more like a disaster relief camp, they took to social media to voice their anger. One image of a dry cheese sandwich in a styrofoam box went viral, and Fyre quickly became a global laughing stock.
Similarly, today’s fashion brands are hauled over the social media coals whenever they put a foot wrong. Just last week, Gucci was forced to issue an apology after social media users pointed out that a black roll-neck jumper in its autumn 18 collection, which had a cutout mouth with large red lips, was racially insensitive. Fashion is naturally provocative, but brands must be careful to ensure their designs, behaviour and marketing campaigns are respectful – otherwise they will have social media to answer to.
3. Build suspense, but not at the expense of customer service
In the run-up to Fyre, influencers were asked to post a plain orange image tile on Instagram that contained no text, to intensify the hype around this mysterious new luxury festival. However, the organisers did not release any images of the festival’s actual location and accommodation, despite repeated requests from ticket holders. This was compounded by a lack of communication from the organisers once the festivalgoers landed on the island. Fyre did the worst thing possible: it built up expectations to the highest degree and then failed, spectacularly, to deliver.
Fashion brands and retailers can learn an important lesson from this. In our Hit or Miss series last year, we noted the terrible level – and in some cases total lack – of customer service in some high street stores. Yes, it’s great to drum up excitement about your brand. Who wouldn’t want queues out the door for their latest collection or collaboration? But you must deliver an experience to match.
4. Be open and transparent
The original plan was to hold Fyre Festival on an island previously owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. However, the organisers were only permitted to use it if they agreed not to mention the Escobar connection. They did, so they were booted off the island – but they did not tell ticket holders. This is one of the reasons there was no coming back from the PR disaster of its failure. Customers can forgive a lot if they are kept in the loop, but pull the wool over their eyes and you lose all trust.
5. Take full responsibility
In the immediate aftermath of Fyre, a statement appeared on the festival’s website stating that, ”due to circumstances out of our control, the physical infrastructure was not in place on time and we are unable to fulfill on that vision safely and enjoyably for our guests”. Ja Rule posted on Twitter that it was “not my fault”, but said he took responsibility anyway. In the Netflix documentary, some of the people working alongside McFarland said they felt responsible for what happened. McFarland later apologised for his actions from prison, where he is serving a six-year sentence for multiples counts of fraud. It was an inadequate response to such an unmitigated disaster.
For example of how to deal with a potential PR disaster, we could look to Primark’s response to the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. While other retailers scrambled to distance themselves from the incident, Primark quickly confirmed that it had an independent third-party supplier factory in the building and provided food aid and short-term financial assistance to all victims or their families, irrespective of whether they worked for Primark’s supplier or not.
Things go wrong, and sometimes they are outside of the company’s control – but the way it is handled can make all the difference.