The Fyre Festival Fiasco: When Influencers Go Bad

The Fyre Festival was a planned music event spearheaded by Ja Rule and businessman Billy McFarland. Billed as a “luxury music festival,” the event was to be held on an island in the Bahamas. Aside from performances by popular acts like Blink-182, Tyga, and Designer, event-goers were promised two weeks of “fun-filled” activities amidst luxurious amenities.

Fyre Festival fizzles and burns out

When the first batch of event goers started arriving on the island, what greeted them was far from a high-end concert venue. Instead, those who made their way there described the scene as looking more like a “refugee camp.” None of the performance stages and activity centers had even been set up. They were also unable to find proper accommodation and were forced to camp out on the concert grounds.

Keep reading to find out how a supposedly luxury event end up crashing and burning in the most spectacular of ways, and how can you avoid such disasters befalling your event.

How social media influencers contributed to the Fyre Festival fiasco

As the Fyre Festival was explicitly geared towards the “millennial crowd”, the organizers had sought ways to connect with this particular audience. To address them, social media and celebrity endorsers and influencers were brought into play.

Building the hype up

The festival was officially announced to the public in November 2016 via a massive social media campaign. Popular models like Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski featured prominently in promotional materials like this promo video…

…as well as in social media posts, like this one on Instagram…

work is tough ?

A post shared by Hailey Baldwin (@haileybaldwin) on

All the promotional materials focused on the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime summer getaway for everyone that could make it out there.

To further reach out to the desired audience, the event’s organizers reportedly hired around 400 influencers, called “Fyre Starters,” to further promote the event. The most recognizable of them was television and online personality Kendall Jenner.

Other influencers that were hired included DJ and music producer Corbin Key, footballer Mike Thomas, and professional surfer Anastasia Ashley.

According to a leaked pitch deck for the event, the influencers were paid generously for their services. Jenner reportedly earned $250,000 from the endorsements. Aside from monetary payment, they also received perks like free flights, accommodations, and tickets to the event.

Forbes analyst Paul Armstrong notes that the use of influencers did indeed contribute to the organizers’ goal of catching the attention, and convincing, of the target audience. Armstrong says many of the event-goers were more than willing to spend $1,200 to $12,000 per ticket because of these influencers.

The backlash on influencers

Following the collapse of the Fyre Festival, a lot of attention turned back to the influencers. This time, though, there were a lot of concerns about how the fiasco would affect their effectiveness in marketing.

Adweek’s Kate Richards explains credibility is an important factor that could determine the success of influencer-fueled promotions. Richards notes that a lot of traditional celebrity endorsers work with brands for several years.  This is in stark contrast with online influencers who are paid per post, which does not always guarantee the delivery of the desired outcome.

According to Kerry Perse, a social media expert interviewed by Richardson, the debacle was unlikely to  have a major impact on someone like Jenner who enjoys a large following on social media. But, Perse warns, it could make people wary about future products that are endorsed by these particular influencers.

The Fyre Festival debacle also highlighted the need for celebrity influencers to take more responsibility for the products they promote.

Vogue’s Lucie Zhang says influencers should go beyond simply posting the required promotional tweets. They need to work closely and diligently with the brands they endorse to ensure the right information is delivered to their followers. This not only protects their credibility as influencers, but also the relationships they enjoy with their own followers.

Zhang adds it is important for influencers to closely abide by the guidelines set by the Fair Trade Commission regarding social media promotions. The FTC states influencers should clearly state their relationship with the brands they are promoting. This, according to some observers, was something that was missing from the influencers’ posts regarding the Fyre Festival.

Addressing the Fyre Festival fiasco

How social media burned the Fyre Festival

Most of the target audience is active on social media and it was there they congregated to vent their cumulative annoyance over the whole affair. Several would-be event goers called out the lack of proper accommodations by pointing to the now infamous “tent cities.”

Others decried what they called the “unfair treatment” of people who were trying to book flights out of the venue.

Due to the gravity of the situation, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism also issued its own statement:

As was the case with other social media PR debacles, the most recent of which befell United Airlines, the Fyre Festival soon found itself at the mercy of netizens. Posts poking fun at the incident quickly appeared on social media.

Memes lampooning the festival-turned-disaster also sprouted and gained a lot of traction:

Some likened the event to DashCon, a similarly botched public event from back in 2014:

Influencers and event goers alike got their share of public scrutiny:

How the organizers responded to the situation

To their credit, Fyre Festival’s social media team tried to reassure the public through their official Instagram account, where they stated they were trying to fix the situation.

Things got off to an unexpected start at day one of Fyre Festival. FOR THOSE CURRENTLY ON GREAT EXUMA We are working to comfortably accommodate guests and deliver a great experience. If you have needs, please head to the "BLUE HOUSE" on the main festival site. Security, first aid, and Fyre Festival staff are here to assist immediately, 24/7. FOR THOSE WITH PENDING TRAVEL TO THE EXUMAS TOMORROW Due to circumstances beyond our control, and in line with a culture of safety, all inbound charter flights to the Exumas have been canceled. Your ticket and any funds uploaded to your RFID band will be refunded. Thank you for bearing with us as we work through the growing pains that every first year event experiences. Revised itinerary information will be shared soon for the remainder of this weekend and weekend two.

A post shared by FYRE FESTIVAL (@fyrefestival) on

But the team also removed most of the promotional materials from the account in an attempt to counter the backlash. Eventually, the organizers had no choice but to announce the festival was “postponed” and that they were working to get all who were stranded on the island back home safely.

Ja Rule also took to Twitter and apologized for the whole fiasco:

But, Mashable’s Laura Vitto notes, the rapper was clearly trying to distance himself from the whole affair with the way the apology was writtenThe insincerity of Ja Rule’s apology gave way to further doubts. Documents came to light revealing he and other organizers had been in communication with influencers in which they warned them not to attend – just days before the event. The documents further revealed that Ja Rule and McFarland were both aware that the festival grounds were horribly under-equipped. Now, the documents are included as evidence in a $100 million class-action suit filed against the organizers.

In a last ditch effort to appease irate guests, the organizers announced they would be issuing refunds:

But in order to be eligible for the refund, claimants allegedly need to fill out a lengthy form.

Festival attendee Shivi Kumar said she had an easier time asking Bank of America for a refund. She had uploaded money to a digital wristband that was supposed to be used as a form of payment on the event grounds. Kumar said she and her friends had paid $3,500 for deluxe lodging for the duration of their stay.

As if to add insult to injury, the organizers offered claimants another option instead of a direct refund: VIP passes to the 2018 edition of the Fyre Festival.

Netizens promptly jumped on the ridiculousness of this proposal:

What you can learn from the Fyre Festival fiasco

Influencers are effective but they need a good backup

With their massive social following, online influencers can definitely pull in crowds for events. But, the effectiveness of influencers also depends on how much you are able to back them up. You need to provide enough support for them to not only be able to confidently promote your event, but also respond to any developments regarding it. This was clearly not the case with the Fyre Festival. While Kendall Jenner and co. did get the crowd hyped up for the upcoming event, they became silent and tried to distance themselves once the debacle erupted.

Being able to deliver on the hype is vital

In all of its promotional materials, Fyre Festival glamorized the image of a fun-filled summer fête with live performances and bikini-clad models. Come event date, though, what guests arrived to experience was something straight out of a nightmare:

Assessing how much  of your promises you can deliver on should be an integral part of planning an event. In fact, this should be done as early as possible. During the conception phase you should be able to foresee whether or not the ideas you have in mind can indeed be delivered upon. Proper communication with all the stakeholders involved in staging the event, as well as the expectant fans, will help temper the hype to a manageable level.

Know when to pull the plug

Business Insider lifestyle editor Madeline Stone reported there had been early signs that the festival was going to turn out to be a disaster. Some of the agreements between the event organizers and contractors, such as the Starr Catering Group, were terminated earlier in April without any indications of replacements.

Another major sign was when Blink-182, who were supposed to headline at the festival, announced they are pulling out.

Even with these turn of events, the organizers refused to cancel. They only relented when the situation had already gotten way out of hand.

To avoid such situations from escalating out of control, it’s crucial that you take note of early warning signs. If there are considerable delays during any stage of the event planning or lack of commitment from sponsors, take it as a sign to pull the plug well before the day of the event. This will give you enough time to inform your would-be guests about what has happened.

Be sincere in your apologies to help lessen the damage

If your event doesn’t go as planned, the best way to appease disappointed fans is to issue a quick, but heartfelt, apology. Get straight to the point, apologize, and assure them that you are doing everything to remedy the situation. Don’t try to shift the blame to someone else. Remember that you, the organizer, are responsible for whatever happened.

It is also important that you deliver your apology not only to those that were directly affected by the mishap, but also to the public in general. Tap into the resources of your influencer force to amplify your voice. You can also use services like automated retweets to further increase your reach.

Don’t be like the Fyre Festival, prevent your event from going up in flames

While the Fyre Festival demonstrated the effectiveness of using influencers to market an event, it also shows that things can go horribly wrong. To stop that from happening, remember  to:

  • Plan your event carefully: Take into account not only the specific goals, but also the risks that you are likely to encounter, and act accordingly.
  • Get your influencers fully involved: Don’t just use them as promoters. Instead, bring them onboard as important members of your communications team.
  • Be attentive to your customers’ concerns: In case of unforeseen developments, keep your communication lines open to your customers and inform them immediately.

Doing all of the above will help ensure that your relationship with your audience reigns supreme – even if things go south and it all ends up in a smoking ash heap.