Fyre Festival’s Lack of Honesty a PR Nightmare

By Fran Stephenson, Principal, Step in Communication

If you haven’t yet heard of the Fyre Festival, there are two new documentaries—one on Netflix and one on Hulu — which highlight the massive failure of a 2017 luxury music festival promoted by entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule.

It was such a debacle that it landed McFarland in jail, left hundreds of contractors, suppliers and employees unpaid, and ruined the livelihoods of citizens of Great Exuma, the Bahamian Island that was the event site.

It would be easy to dissect every misstep about Fyre Festival because there were a lot of them. But the biggest mistakes are lack of disclosure and speaking truth to power.

Festival Organizers Didn’t Understand the Meaning of Disclosure

Disclosure of relationships is a public relations fundamental and was completely missing in the festivals’ contacts with influencers.

Before the festival, models were treated to an exotic weekend in the Bahamas, which served as a backdrop for the promotional video used to market the festival. Promotion with no disclosure.

As ticket sales for the fictitious event drew near, influencers were paid “no less than $20,000 ” for social media posts to get early buzz for the project with no disclosure requirements as required by the FTC for disclosing paid influencer relationships. Similarly, at least one celebrity was paid $250,000 for ONE SOCIAL POST to promote the festival.

An ethical public relations counselor would have required the legal disclosures as well as made sure contracts and reporting results were in place.

As if that wasn’t enough, the tricky issue of disclosure is also woven into the newly released documentaries. A story in the New Republic released just last week, paints a picture of continued problems with this. It’s a long and complicated string, but the bottom line is that both documentaries have ties to the either festival organizers, filmmakers who were hired to promote the festival or contractors trying to salvage their reputation after the fact.

So the documentaries are tainted, too. If you want to really see what happened at the Fyre Festival, here are two news stories which recreated the timeline.

Business Insider


Speaking Truth to Power a Missing Component

Besides being portrayed as a petulant child in the documentary, Billy McFarland didn’t want to hear the bad news as the event began to unravel. He summarily dismissed or replaced anyone who expressed skepticism or concern about elements of the festival.

As public relations practitioners, we talk very loftily about speaking truth to power, but the bottom line is simple. It is our job to ask the hard questions. It is critical that we question the strategies and tactics of our clients and employers in order to understand the ramifications of organizational action.

While the Netflix documentary gives some insight into those who tried to course-correct some of McFarland’s decisions, there is no doubt in my mind that there were many more instances than we saw on camera.

The New Republic sums it up perfectly.

“Fyre Festival is a story about insidious digital marketing, corporate irresponsibility, and the misdeeds of a handful of men who control the images that appear on your social media and shape your opinions.”

So the next time you’re concerned about whether your marketing program is “Instagram-worthy” or not, remember how badly the Fyre Festival did in the category of honesty.

About the Author

Fran Stephenson, APR is principal of Step In Communication and the San Antonio Member of PRConsultants Group.