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The Best of the Worst: 2017’s PR Disasters #3: The Ego-driven, Schadenfreude-inducing Fyre Festival Catastrophe

With a too-small team of inexperienced, egotistical and greedy bros at the helm, not enough time and even less money, the Fyre festival is our third dis-honoree for PR Disaster of the Year. This event, promoted as a lavish, star-studded extravaganza on a private island in the Bahamas, was destined to be a failure from the very beginning.

Perhaps if their marketing had been as inept as their planning, they could have kept this misguided, overly-ambitious idea from becoming the utter clusterf* that it was.

But unlike our our previous installments, this case at least lets us revel in some schadenfreude. And as for learnings, well, while this doesn’t solve the debate over whether or not “underpromise and overdeliver” is a good approach to customer service, this shows us why no one in their right mind would say the reverse is true.

But overpromise is exactly what the organizers of the Fyre Festival did. And, unfortunately, it’s the only thing they did well. Beginning with an FTC-regulation-violating social influencer campaign, the expectations established for this first-time event were absurdly high. As were the ticket prices. But the marketing worked and people bought into promises that would go catastrophically unmet.

The base fact is that this event should never have happened. The organizers were in over their heads and the writing was on the wall – in neon, all caps – early on. They couldn’t get partners or investors to come on board, the island site itself was far from the paradise presented and the closest things to luxury accommodations that could be delivered in time were tents. The organizers were repeatedly advised that moving ahead was a very bad idea, but they didn’t listen. It’s rumored one organizer even said, “Let's just do it and be legends, man.” Somehow I don’t think “legendary failure” was what he meant.

But legendary failure it is, and this could really depose the Challenger Explosion as a perfect business school case study. While the first lesson is don’t make promises on which you can’t deliver, the second lesson is, if you do, fess up and find a way to lessen the distance between what you said and what you did.

Fyre Festival organizers should have cancelled the event and didn’t. They should have allowed - even encouraged - ticket holders to cancel for a full refund, but didn’t. They should have offered partial refunds as soon as it became clear it wouldn’t be the luxurious experience originally depicted, but didn’t. So attendees were surprised, and rightfully ticked off, to arrive and find a comically different scenario than they’d imagined, and one they would never ever have paid for.

Another thing we can learn from this mistake is to pay attention warning signs as they come, because most PR disasters are a long time in the making, with missed cues and ignored warnings. Listen to the people who know more than you do. Perhaps these guys thought too highly of themselves to recognize they were in over their heads, but time and time again, they were given valuable advice by those with far more expertise, and time and time again, they ignored it.

And now they’re faced with lawsuits and fraud charges, and we’ll just see if they learned anything from this debacle that can help them dig out of the pit their reputations will still be in when they get out of jail.



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