Influencers and Responsibility: Extinguishing the Blaze of the Fyre Festival

By Karina Dooley

Early last month, social media was alight with images from the Fyre Festival - an exclusive island soirée that crashed and burned leaving furious customers, allegations of mismanagement, unpaid suppliers, a stack of lawsuits, and no money left to pay staff.

Set in the idyllic surrounds of the Bahamas, the festival was intended as an extravaganza of music and adventure, with VIP treatment for attendees, who reportedly paid thousands of dollars per ticket. They were lured by the idea of two weekends in paradise – tropical sun, big headline acts, exclusive private parties, privately chartered flights from Miami, and high-end catering providing the very best food and drink.

However, all didn’t go according to plan. When would-be partygoers arrived, they landed into a dystopian nightmare.

According to reports, there was little preparation - bad food, makeshift tents instead of luxury villas, and suppliers and performers pulling out in their droves. The festival was postponed within a few hours of its start, and many attendees were reportedly stranded as flights were cancelled to and from the island.  Lack of communication meant that guests had no idea what was happening, having arrived at an event that didn’t live up to its promise, and the lack of staff led guests to panic. The organisers, rapper Ja Rule and his business partner Billy MacFarland, are now the subject of eight lawsuits claiming that they defrauded ticket buyers, one seeking $100 million in damages.

In the run up to the festival, those behind the event deployed a brigade of glamourous social media influencers to plug the event, including internet famous models Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid. Almost 400 influencers were involved, and concert-goers were seduced by sponsored posts showing supermodels lazing on a luxurious yacht. When everything fell apart at Fyre, a social media mob turned not only on the festival organisers, but also on the Instagram girls that sold them the tickets in the first place.

Defined by Forbes as a “form of marketing that identifies and targets individuals with influence”, influencer marketing is the phenomenon whereby brands pay people with large social media followings to plug their products on their channels. Over the last number of years, the power of platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, have led to brands paying megabucks for endorsements and collaborations with big names. There’s no doubt that innovative influencer marketing campaigns can yield success such as actress Jennifer Aniston’s campaign with Emirates.

Seen as the next generation of advertising, it’s not difficult to see the appeal. It’s based on word of mouth marketing, which has always been the most influential form of promotion. Influencers tend to have a highly loyal and engaged following. Their brands are built around their personalities and likes and dislikes – their followers connect with them and trust them, seeing them almost like friends recommending the latest must-have item.

But when it all goes wrong, it begs the question: how responsible should influencers be for what they’re selling? By creating an affiliation between their name and an external brand, influencers run the risk of putting their credibility on the line, which in severe cases endangers them with reputation damage.  Case in point: Kendall Jenner and Pepsi.   The power of an influencer rests ultimately with their followers, so particularly in the case of paid partnerships, the reality must stack up behind the Instagram filter. 

Certainly, influencers are forming an important part of the new media landscape, and in Ireland, the conversation is focused on transparency. In 2016, the Public Relations Association of Ireland (PRII) laid out social media guidelines for interacting with the internet’s big names. In an interview with Fora.ie, the head of the PRII acknowledged that because of the newness of the industry, there’s no blueprint.

In its own commentary of the Fyre Festival debacle, the New York Times reported the relaxed responses of the owners, who are working on a 2018 festival to right all wrongs. Speaking to employees, Ja Rule said, “The whole world knows Fyre’s name now,” and “This will pass guys.”

According to the Fyre Festival’s Facebook page, the event is ‘a journey not a destination.’ As the organisers prepare for their 2018 comeback, it remains to be seen which influencers are prepared to lay their reputations on the line to join them on this journey.

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