The failed Fyre Festival of 2017 serves as a cautionary tale to any who’d ignore warnings from trusted advisers and key stakeholders. Sandra Erez discusses how the Fyre Festival went so disastrously wrong – and the lesson compliance practitioners should take away.
The recent Netflix documentary “Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened” revealed the 2017 fiasco to be a real “trip” – the kind that comes from bad LSD with lingering, long-term effects. Touted as a luxury music festival set on the balmy beaches of the Bahamas, this highly publicized would-be event tantalized millennials with the chance to live the elusive elite lifestyle for a weekend (and talk about it for the rest of their lives). Dangling ads of bikinied supermodels frolicking in the waves succeeded as the bait that would reel thousands of suckers in to this Titanic event – hook, line and sinker. Never mind that it all seemed to be too good to be true; everything is possible if you have the right app, the right hair, the right attitude and are in search of the perfect Instagram backdrop – real or not.
The Fyre Festival launch started off with a splash worthy of any jet ski – selling 95 percent of the costly tickets within 24 hours. Like moths to a flame, the target audience was enticed into the web spun with golden promises, thereby proving to founder Billy McFarland and his team that his idea was on fire. Now, totally pumped and egged on by their initial spectacular success, the staff and partners literally dug their heels (and unfortunately their heads) into the sand to get this show on the road.
However, it was not long before an undercurrent of grumbling voices bubbled to the surface to replace the sound of popping champagne corks. Investors, marketers and contractors working alongside Billy were starting to see this endeavor for what it really was: one big sinkhole of lies and illusions that didn’t hold water. As portrayed in the Netflix documentary interviews, one by one, the members of the Fyre inner circle keep shaking their heads as if to clear their vision of a mirage in the desert that had disappeared. They knew they would not be able to catapult their paying clients into the millennial lap of luxury. There were just too many obstacles and no time logistically to get an event of this magnitude up and running. But this is la la land of Instagram, and the show must go on – even if no one in their right mind thought it should. No Fyre alarms were sounded, and nothing was done to stop Paradise Lost from turning into Dante’s Inferno.
The reason the Fyre festival fiasco is so mesmerizing to all of us is because it shines a light on one of human nature’s weakest components: the naïve and vacuous belief that all that glitters is gold – especially if the guy with the key to paradise (and the internet!) says so. Although the members of the Fyre contingent knew they were sliding down a slippery slope, they were either afraid to speak up, ignored if they did or mesmerized by the power of McFarland’s unbounded energy and vision. Lulled into complacency, a lot of very smart (and some very stupid) people did not think to blow the whistle and rain on the parade of idiots marching straight into a sea of lawsuits – it just couldn’t be done – because no one important would listen! Ironically, marooned on an island of insularity, the Fyre festival team got their day in the sun when they went down in a tropical media firestorm, never to rise again.
As observers, it is easy to just exclaim how crazy and stupid everyone was, but we all know it is a daunting task to break ranks when the corporate ship is sailing to its profit-laden buried treasure just over the horizon. And, as we have gleaned from almost all whistleblowing tales, it is easy to blame the messenger; he just might end up taking a long walk off a short plank while the unsung (no pun intended) hero walks away into the fiery sunset.
However, although hindsight is always 20/20, the truth is that this entrepreneur-turned-felon’s disaster could have been prevented. The implementation of a low-cost whistleblowing portal software could have served as an internal communication tool to mitigate risks – stopping Captain hook from continuing on his destructive path to Never Never Land.
Designed to foster an ethical, transparent organizational culture, a whistleblowing portal enables safe reporting of incidents while stakeholders have a window into what’s lurking beneath the surface. Had a software of this type been in place, Carola Jain, Fyre’s main investor, could have shattered the pristine mirror of lies that was held up to her face and instead, pulled the plug. Or, if not from the top, then someone else in the lower deck could have done a bottoms-up and anonymously radioed in a distress call.
Chloe Gordon, for example, contracted as a talent producer, got a “front-row seat to chaos” and understood the event was untenable. She said as much to her supervisor, who assured her that the Fyre execs were legitimate, budget was approved and everyone should just carry on. It is clear that all hands on deck – from marketing to finance to contractors – were glued to a voracious food chain of lies that made sure loose lips would not sink any ships – because they were too busy swallowing one for the team.
The lesson learned is that instead of expecting people mired in fear, fed lies or blinded by obeisance to break the barriers of silence with their bare hands, an organization must set the tone from the top and provide trusted means for easy and open communication. It is the simple right of every employee to have a safety net to cling to when the corporate waters get rough – one they should learn to ask for and even demand as part of standard corporate governance.
Surely when news of this fiasco washed over internet waves, the list of people saying “I told you so” to everyone they really “told so” must have been endless. A whistleblowing solution, available to each rung on the employment ladder, could have acted as the “told you so” internal voice of reason, drowning out the seagulls cackling happily to their fans on the beached fantasy festival. Companies have an obligation to their consumers and investors not to airbrush reality – the stakes are too high, the pockets too deep and the whistle of condemnation too shrill.
These days, if something is wrong, people are being taught to speak up – so encourage that piece of humanity with a touch of available technology.
What did we say earlier on? Everything is possible if you have the right app, the right attitude and are seeking the perfect Instagram backdrop – which should be the blue, transparent sea of justice. The right hair – well, that’s your problem.