‘Fyre’ debacle shows influencers and brands that authenticity is the only way to go

Never abuse the trust earned with your tribe regardless of whether you represent a company, agency, media organisation or you are an individual influencer – as you will never get it back – warns Kenny Yap

While the Fyre music festival was disastrous, it has certainly provided the fodder for two successful documentaries on streaming platforms – Netflix and Hulu.

Directed by Chris Smith, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (the Netflix film) offered a closer look at what went on behind the scenes, and how Fyre masterminds Billy McFarland and Ja Rule came to be in the eye of the storm.

For the uninitiated, the event was launched as a ‘luxury music festival on a private island once owned by Pablo Escobar’ [it wasn’t, by the way] created with the intent of promoting the Fyre music artist-booking app.

A bevy of influencers with huge social media followings including celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid were roped in to promote an onslaught of slickly-made promo videos, images and social media posts.

They promised a utopian picture of the greatest party on earth. But it all went horribly wrong and utopia quickly transformed into a nightmare when those who had paid for tickets landed at the festival. The customers faced serous inadequacies when it came to security, food, accommodation and the lack of actual performers. Of course, this resulted in the festival being infamously cancelled once the guests were already there.

The whole episode clearly demonstrated the power of social media influencers and key opinion leaders, but at the same time showed how influencers can also play their part in epic failures. It really boils down to the fundamental principle of trust and authenticity. Without a doubt, this was lacking on all sides.

Expectation versus reality

Brands (and all other stakeholders engaged) have a responsibility to communicate these offerings truthfully and not misrepresent the facts. To be fair in the case of Fyre, the celebrities and influencers engaged may not have had an accurately picture painted to them by the organisers.

That said, as events unfolded, they should have been responsible enough to address the concerns of their fans – who trusted them and were led to believe in what they were selling.

Paid versus earned engagements

There’s always a debate on whether paid engagements are authentic, and whether influencer engagements should be earned just like editorial coverage. Regardless, the most important element of the engagement should be focused on the brand and interest alignment with the influencer.

And when there are monetary incentives, the paid engagement should revolve around the creative production output that the influencer invests to create the assets – not to buy their advocacy. Influencers need to stay true to the products and experiences that they believe in, and make a considered judgement call on whether to accept or decline the engagement.

Social media: Best friend or worst enemy?

Social media can be your best friend or the worst enemy you ever imagined. With Fyre, we see how the use of social media generated fantastic buzz and results pre-launch – with tickets completely sold out in a short space of time.

On the flip side, it also became the biggest PR and reputation nightmare for those who had backed it once the public came to realise they weren’t getting the experience that they paid for.

An apology is better than a cover-up

Towards the end of the documentary, we see that the Fyre team and stakeholders were pretty much convinced that the festival would be a nightmare. Not just in terms of media backlash but, more worryingly, the logistics weren’t even sufficient to accommodate the number of attendees.

This was their one and only opportunity to be upfront with everybody, to be earnest with their apology and share a service recovery plan. However, they decided otherwise and even continued the push to get attendees to transfer more money to RFID tags (to buy food and drink at the festival) prior to the event. The money came first and safety came last.

The truth will out – from hero to zero in an instant

In today’s world, most people are empowered with the tech tools to gather information easily and quickly. It is only a matter of time before the truth gets out. And when this unfolds, it often leads to reputation damage beyond repair. Companies that have built trust and legacies can go from ‘hero to zero’ almost immediately.

Likewise, this applies to influencers. Fake content, questionable followers and shady engagements will eventually catch up with those posting, and often lead to dire consequences. So always be authentic and truthful, it’s the only way.

Never abuse the trust earned with your tribe regardless of whether you represent a company, agency, media organisation or you are an individual influencer. The Fyre fiasco is a perfect case study on how the power of social media can both engage large numbers of people and then quickly destroy a brand and those that promoted it – if what is promised is not delivered. It’s a cautionary tale. You’ve been warned.

Yap says Fyre shows you must respect your tribe of followers

Kenny Yap is Havas Group Singapore general manager of social and public relations


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