Influencers Cashed In But No One Else Got the Experience: Three PR Lessons Learned from the Failed Fyre Festival


You may or may not have heard of the ill-famed Fyre Festival, the event that was set to go down in history (yes, pun intended) as the most luxurious and exclusive island getaway one could ever dream of attending. Fyre Festival was supposed to be the queen of festivals, the crème de la crème when it came to beach villas and resorts, music talent, jet skiing, celebrity sightings and encounters, you name it. What most people didn’t know at the time was that virtually everything about the Fyre Festival was a fallacy and that the things promised were merely living in social media’s alternate reality.

Ironically, social media served both as the bastion and weapon of destruction for the egregious Fyre Festival. Thanks to the likes of socialite Kendall Jenner, supermodel Bella Hadid and others, the Fyre Festival quite literally blew up like a storm. Through the power and clout of the most elite social media influencers, Fyre Festival became the most anticipated event of the year, with tickets selling out in the thousands. It wasn’t until people hit the ground at Great Exuma (not Pablo Escobar’s former and remote private island as it was advertised) and began sharing photos and videos of the site, that the world uncovered the true face of the Fyre Festival.

The failed event garnered so much media attention that two rival documentaries have now been released: Hulu’s Fyre Fraud and Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened. Both documentaries expose a phenomenon that proved to be a byproduct of the force of influencer marketing, but the narratives differ slightly on who is primarily to blame. Because Netflix’s Fyre is produced by Jerry Media, the same company that was hired by the Fyre team to conduct all marketing and social media operations, this version casts most or even all the blame on the festival organizer, Billy McFarland, and downplays any role it might have had in the unfolding of the catastrophe. On the other hand, Hulu’s Fyre Fraud concentrates on the social media marketing aspect of the story and jabs at the absurd influence of social media stars and celebrities.

Despite the contrasting narratives, both documentaries convey the same takeaways and hint at the PR lessons to be learned from this magnificent disaster.

Evaluate your vision before executing

Every aspect of the Fyre Festival was phenomenal except the product. The festival organizer, Billy McFarland, undoubtedly hired the best of the best, but did not realistically evaluate his vision before executing. He jumped impulsively on his vision without determining how much time would be needed to build what he had in mind. The lesson here is that no matter how good your marketing or PR strategy is or how much investment you receive, you should still determine whether there is a foundation in place to deliver given factors such as time constraints, location and money.

Be strategic when selecting influencers for your campaign

If there’s one thing we learned from the Fyre festival fiasco is that influencer marketing has the power to move mountains by creating a tremendous level of awareness and visibility. A handful of high-profile influencers were paid large amounts of cash to post promotional content (yes, we know about that infamous orange square) on their social media accounts, creating extreme hype and anticipation. Sources say that Kendall Jenner was paid a whopping $250K for one single sponsored post by Fyre Festival. The problem was that as influencers cashed in, the product fell behind on expectations as not enough money was being allocated to development and infrastructure. Mismanagement of funds coupled with the large cost of sponsored posts by high-profile influencers produced a divide between reality and expectations.

When selecting influencers for your campaign, it’s important to define the goals and the target audience for your brand, service, product or event. In the case of the Fyre Festival, the organizers should have collaborated with smaller name influencers that would have reduced the cost of the social campaigns. Microinfluencers could have done the trick for Fyre Festival as they often have more clout over smaller targeted audiences. The big takeaway here is that brands should have a strategic plan of action for influencer marketing campaigns, including clear definition of goals and target audiences, as well as thorough research on influencers.

Recognize when you should pull the plug

The festival organizer, Billy McFarland, failed to recognize when he should have terminated plans for the event and as a result, the event blew up into an even bigger disaster. Amidst all the warnings from investors and others involved that the festival would not deliver on its promise, Billy still pushed the event forward. This turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes as the management had to deal with all the people who were left stranded without proper accommodation or basic necessities. While all the promotional videos and pictures circulated on social media, the festival was lagging behind and Billy failed to pull the plug even though he knew that the event would not deliver even weeks before it was set to happen.

The promotional footage that the public saw, including of models reveling on the beach, riding jet skis, and frolicking on private yachts was a grand illusion that played on consumers’ fantasies. Experiential marketing proved to be a success but handling of the event was a calamity. Consumers know that roadblocks along the road are inevitable so the lesson here is that Billy should have disclosed the bumps along the road sooner rather than later and simply said, “I am sorry.”

We urge brands to keep these lessons in mind with the hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.