Fyre Festival: A PR Nightmare

By now, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen – or at least heard of – one of the Fyre Festival documentaries released by Netflix and Hulu last month. The entire fiasco can be boiled down to this – rapper Ja Rule and entrepreneur/con man Billy McFarland tried (and failed) to throw the most elite, exclusive music festival known to date. After building the festival brand, neither one knew how to execute the vision – including infrastructure for food, accommodations or musical performances. Chaos ensued and now Billy is serving a six-year prison sentence and Ja Rule is the author of this infamous tweet:

As a PR person who was fascinated by the story in 2016, I watched both documentaries as soon as they were released. While each offers its own twist on the festival’s downfall, I kept wondering as I watched, If Fyre Media Inc. (the company behind the festival) had been a V2 client, what would we have recommended along the way to help prevent and/or manage the crisis?

1. Plan, plan, plan.
At its core, Fyre Festival was a good idea – throw a luxurious, celebrity-infested party on a tropical island. How could millennials say no? Billy and Ja Rule clearly understood the power that FOMO (fear of missing out), social media and influencer culture has on this generation. Where the idea fell apart was the actual planning and execution of the event. Billy, Ja Rule and other Fyre decision-makers did not understand the scale of this undertaking, nor did they have the necessary experience or expertise to make it successful.

At V2, we kick off each year (sometimes each quarter) by meeting with our clients to understand their goals, campaigns, tactics and timelines. Even in an ever-changing industry like PR, we understand that having a detailed execution plan for each project is key to its success. Without one, deadlines get missed, opportunities are lost and execution can generally devolve into a mess.

2. Flash only goes so far.
One of the major reasons Fyre Festival went viral was its original promotional video. Featuring shots of the world’s top models swimming on a deserted Bahamian island and partying next to massive bonfires on the beach, it is no wonder people were sold from the second they watched it. But as both documentaries show, the hype created in the video was all that Fyre Festival had to lean on.

While flashiness is a fun part of any news story, a good PR professional understands the importance of being able to back it up. It doesn’t take much for people to see through something shiny and realize there’s not much substance behind it. For every major PR success, there are hours of work and contingency planning behind it – whether it’s media lists, content calendars, metrics trackers or industry research to support any claims.

3. Tell the Truth.
As the logistics of Fyre Festival fell apart, both documentaries highlight the many opportunities Billy had to cancel the event or at least adjust guests’ expectations. Yet, instead of coming clean – and perhaps salvaging some of the brand’s reputation – Billy decided to push forward in a series of scams and fraudulent promises that all came to a head when guests arrived.

Despite our reputation for spin, PR pros know one thing to be true – honesty is the best policy, especially in a crisis. While PR is about amplifying the innovative, interesting things our clients are doing, we are also called upon to guide clients through events like an executive firing, downsizing or an organizational pivot. The core of our message is always focused on getting in front of the news and controlling the narrative. Once someone else breaks the story for you, your chances of making it through the crisis unscathed are much slimmer.

While many see Fyre Festival as a joke, the documentaries do illustrate how it is easier than ever to create and promote an image, without the facts to back it up. It’s important to not lose sight of the business behind the brand, or the management of the company’s most important asset – its reputation. That’s where good PR comes in.


February 13, 2019


By Victoria Newell


Crisis Communications