'The influencers became the influenced' - an industry on Fyre

Ja Rule was conned, so too was Kendall Jenner, supermodels and an army of 400 Insta stars. Experts from social media and PR agencies tell PRWeek what the Fyre Festival fail tells us about influencer marketing.

It was supposed to be "bigger than Coachella", the most exclusive party ever assembled on an exotic, deserted island and that moment when the perfectly curated world of Instagram actually came to life:

Blink 182 was a headliner (we know), Ja Rule was ‘Livin it Up’, you could spend time on a yacht with Pepsi star Kendall Jenner for a princely fee, and beachfront luxury villas were the go-to form of accommodation on an island so exclusive that Pablo Escobar’s family owned it, or so we were told.

That’s the dream thousands were sold by some of the world’s top supermodels and a small army of Instagram influencers in one of the most successful influencer campaigns ever conceived.

Except, none of it was true.

The event was less ‘Caribbean Coachella’ and more Lord of the Flies. It 'took place' on an undeveloped patch of land nowhere near a private island with soaking wet natural disaster tents (the irony is never lost), no live music, droopy sandwiches and mounds of rubbish. Dozens of angry local Bahamians were left owed a yacht-load of money after weeks of hard, ultimately fruitless, labour.

It was run by now-jailed fraudster Billy McFarland (pictured below next to Ja Rule), the rent-a-yacht version of Frank Abagnale from Catch Me if You Can.

The Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened exposes this farce in all its cringeworthy glory. Hulu’s version, Fyre Fraud, is a much more appropriately named version.

Aside from sniggering at well-off young people, who were drawn to the festival by paid models and a pantone 021 image on their Insta feeds, the documentary tells the tale of the power of influencer marketing, as well as its many fallacies.

These include zero transparency or accountability for an event that had never previously existed, as well as no rules to help people decipher whether an island full of Insta models is fact or fiction.

In the aftermath, several of the influencers involved in the promotion have been sued. One, model Bella Hadid, apologised. Jenner, who was reportedly paid $250,000 (£193,000) for one single Instagram post, deleted her promo post, as did most influencers, who remained silent as the crisis unfolded.

PRWeek asked PR professionals and social media experts what these documentaries teach us about influencer marketing:

Joe Mackay-Sinclair, founder and ECD, The Romans

"Hearing the old folk of PR get increasingly irate about influencer marketing is like watching a Jim Davidson set at Butlins: they don’t understand how to work the VCR timer but why should they? They’re not wrong; all these youngsters doing the social media selfies are wrong. Yes, influencer marketing can often be shorthand for lazy AF comms. Yes, ‘influencers’ and their sometimes ham-fisted #ad #spon posts make easy kicking for a myriad of sneering comms pros. But when was the last time a shit survey and a tacky photo on Potter’s Fields resulted in millions of dollars of ticket sales? If your goal is purely transactional and you're less concerned about brand-building, then influencer marketing clearly works – it just needs better regulation. Want to put an ad on the telly? Clearcast will approve it and the ASA will investigate false claims. Similarly, it shouldn’t be incumbent for every influencer to be compelled to forensically analyse every brand that approaches them."

Katie Hunter, social media and influencer lead, Karmarama

"Using influencers to promote an event that was ultimately to launch an influencer-booking app makes a lot of sense. There isn’t anything new in that approach, the orange square was everywhere, and the festival sold out. It’s really the only bit that did work, which is part of the problem. Should influencers or creators who make money from partnering with brands be aware of the regulations and be honest with audiences? Absolutely. Ideally, they should be well versed in what it is they’re promoting or partnering with. In this case, there was very little transparency around what they were actually being asked to promote, however if they were a little clearer about the endorsement it may have avoided implications once it all went tits up. In this case it was more likely bad judgement and naivety rather than a deliberate attempt to trick audiences, but that isn’t to say there isn’t a responsibility to make sure that research is being done up front."

Jamie Stockwood, founding director, The Zeitgeist Agency (which manages comms of festivals)

"The big question is: who’s responsibility is it to tell the truth? It’s a grey area, but ultimately it’s up to the paying client to feed truthful information to the influencer. If the influencer is then in doubt, it’s best for their own interests they stay quiet than put themselves in a litigious position. Individual influencers aren’t usually interested in battling across their social channels with any client. It’s their shop window and as such it would obviously be detrimental to their social persona, commercial currency and future business. As the director of a crisis management and communications company myself, the handling of Fyre was farcical, dangerous and possibly the worst we’ve ever seen. It would be erroneous for the PR world to turn around and say that the responsibility for any of the situation lay at the door of any influencer. The fault was clearly the promoter and their actions in this case."

Suzie Barrett, managing director, Third City

"Netflix’s documentary on Fyre Festival gave me the hives. It shows what happens when a fraudster, and naïve and gullible marketers collaborate: a complete car crash. The first unbreakable rule in any marketing campaign: never lie.  First lying is wrong, and secondly, it’s stupid. You can also see – not just from the top dog – that once lying became acceptable damage control, it became addictive - they were all to blame. As for the instagrammers – who were paid insane sums of money – Kendall Jenner was paid £193K for one instagram post – it just highlights the greater need for regulation.  More than just flagging promoted content but agents doing the proper due diligence on the brand they are being asked to promote and endorse. It’s common sense."

Zanna Wharfe, senior strategist, We Are Social

"Should influencers, when they know something to be a falsehood, retract their support for the product? In this case, I’d argue ‘yes’. Nothing dies on the internet. We’ve seen that with Trump’s tweets being dragged up to counter arguments he’s making today. You can’t expect your past digital actions, even if they’ve been deleted, to stay hidden amidst controversy. Therefore, the moment an influencer knows they are misleading people they have the responsibility to tell the truth. If not for their followers, but for their own reputations. However, we need to bear in mind the balance between supporting fact and supporting rumour. One thing that’s clear about Fyre Festival is that the organisers were masters at deception, masters at convincing everyone that they were going to pull it off. Until it was abundantly clear that Fyre was going to be a disaster it’d be amiss for any of the influencers to back rumours they couldn’t substantiate. Once the truth was known – that’s when silence can be more damaging than saying something."

Influencers, like model Bella Hadid, helped sell the festival with Instagram posts of an orange tile

James Herring, co-founder and CEO, Taylor Herring

"The Netflix documentary has done an excellent job of educating the public to the dire consequences of acting on shallow promotions peddled by influencers – the majority of whom will say pretty much anything for money. Thought leadership is meant to be about expertise and credibility, but the current state of play is anything but. It’s a racket. Who's really being influenced here? The answer I suspect is ‘the vulnerable’ and ‘the gullible’ and as such, the influencer industry is on target for implosion. The Fyre debacle further emphasises the desperate need for regulation, especially when it comes to flagging promoted content. Thankfully, in the short term, the huge media backlash on all the involved influencers will hopefully deliver some instant ‘self-regulation’ while the authorities get their act together."

Alex Ayin, commercial director, Media Chain

"Due to the nature of the career that 'influencers' have embarked upon, one of the most powerful elements to their success is the relationship they build with their audience. This begs the morality question as to whether anyone, Insta famous or not, would recommend a family member or one of their closest friends to visit somewhere that they have never been themselves. Even though some people in society often get swept up in the FOMO and excitement of gigs and festival season, it is paramount that influencers bear a responsibility to the people that have chosen to give them their time, attention and appreciation, otherwise the trust developed over years will be lost in an instant. In this case, radical transparency was needed, yet deception and a lack of communication resulted in one of the largest negative steamrollers across social media that our generation has ever witnessed."

Emma Hazan, global head of consumer, Hotwire

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing. While we can now all laugh with disbelief while watching the documentary detailing the disaster that was Fyre Festival, at the time, everyone who jumped on the bandwagon did so fully believing they were going to be part of the next big thing. Influencers like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski, who were paid to promote Fyre Festival to their followers, should have apologised when they realised it was a sham. It was misrepresentation. Why? Because none of these influencers tagged their post as #ads so their followers naturally took their word as gospel, which was of course misleading. Interestingly, Bella Hadid did write a post apologising but this post has since been deleted. Maybe because there is a still a lawsuit going on trying to sue 100 influencers for negligent misrepresentation. Although it is still a murky environment and some influencers aren’t being transparent, there has been a shift for the better, although it does need regulating, as with any platform."

Kevan Barber, creative and insights manager, Grayling 

"The documentary is a pretty scary representation of the influencer industry 18 months ago. It shows that the influencers Fyre Festival worked with were almost worshipped at the time – it was merely their involvement shown through an orange square that excited people, rather than anything tangible. I’d like to think audiences have moved on since then, having seen enough examples of influencers not disclosing partnerships and jumping from brand to brand each day. The recent controversies around Fyre Festival and this week’s CMA announcement have tended to focus on larger celebrity influencers and it’d be unfair to tarnish all influencers with a lack of due diligence and authenticity when engaging with brands. Brands and PRs need to be conscious of damage other brands or sponsored posts may have done to an influencer’s reputation before engaging them: it’s not just about the numbers – read those sponsored post comments and check those engagement rates."

Ceri-Jane Hackling, managing director, Cerub PR

"Essentially, when influencers are paid to promote events or products, it is advertising and should be treated as such. The concept of influencers is still relatively new and young people in particular are easily swayed by them unless they are educated about how this process works. In the future, all paid or 'payment in kind' collaborations should be made clear to give audiences the knowledge they need to do the research themselves to decide if a product or service is right for them. The influencers may still have an effect, but it gives the audience the ability to make informed decisions."

Andrew Olley, director, Borkowski

"On one level they clearly worked as tickets sold out and the illusion of an experience for millennials seeking the ultimate social capital was perfectly conjured. However, it is perhaps now the benchmark for the ultimate influencer fail and a catalyst for how new rules must be instigated and actually enforced. Clearly the famous faces and their flunkies were bamboozled by a very charismatic charlatan, Billy McFarland. He talked the talk and had the penthouse, lifestyle and celebrity connections. Until social media rules are explicitly made clear and rigorously enforced, they can quite honestly say they were swept up in the excitement - just as much as the unsuspecting punters - who also wanted a slice of the fantasy and the social capital."

Jacqueline Bennett, account director, Pangolin

"Fyre Festival was an extreme example of why authenticity should be at the core of working with influencers. One of the guys from the advertising firm who made the promo video for the festival (who was interviewed in the Netflix documentary) said something to effect of "If I film a commercial for BMW, I am taking them on good faith that they are producing a real product that people can buy". But I guess the difference is that we, as consumers, can easily recognise a BMW commercial as a traditional ad, selling us a dream to some extent, whereas with influencers the water is more murky."

Ro Sakhardande, account director, Jukebox PR (which specialises in festival comms)

"Influencer marketing isn’t necessarily the problem in this case, it was that the product itself didn’t live up to what the marketing campaign had portrayed. If we are to assume that the "talent" were led to believe that what they were promoting was what the festival would be delivering, then they are not in my option culpable for the fiasco. However, on a wider level there should be more transparency when it comes to the use of influencers, their audience should be made aware what is an organic post and what is paid content."

Holly Smith, graduate account executive, Papillon

"Nobody questioned Fyre’s validity, because the rich and famous were selling them the dream. So, when the dream turned into ash it was easy to know where to point the finger first. But what about those that sold the dream in the first place? Fyre didn’t deliver to their consumers, but the rich and famous were careless with their power. The influencers became the influenced as they appeared like magpies to the event, without knowing what they were promoting. With power comes responsibility and I think this is a prime example of misused power. Influencers are supposed to be the experts in the brand; they breathe and believe it because it’s something they would use/attend. Whether this comes with a pay packet or not, influencers have the responsibility to check that what they are selling is credible – because it’s their name on the line."

More industry pros reacted on Twitter:

Thumbnail image ©Fyre Festival/YouTube

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