New attention focusing on the ethics of public relations and social media marketing empire Jerry Media is thanks to two new documentaries about the failed 2017 Fyre Festival and the social and industry impacts of their unethical social media marketing strategies. Jerry Media’s participation in the promotion of the Fyre Festival is of particular interest to PR professionals because it raises the question of what their ethical responsibilities were to their publics in a new media landscape. Jerry Media’s repeat breach of ethics has harmed their organizational-public relationship, which may be reparable with deliberate changes in their ethical organizational strategy, defining ethical guidelines for practitioner behavior and hiring experienced practitioners capable of making moral decisions in a fast-paced marketplace.
Since 2017, Jerry Media has received negative media for three recent breaches of public relations ethics, including but not limited to:
- Promoting the 2017 Fyre Festival despite knowing the event would not occur as advertised.
- Producing a Netflix documentary about the Fyre Festival (“FYRE”) without full transparency about their involvement in promoting it. (Additional press and criticism was generated when Hulu released a dueling documentary one week before the widely-advertised Netflix documentary, “Fyre Fraud,” that showed how Jerry Media acted irresponsibly in their business partnership with Fyre Festival.)
- Stealing content that had been created by others, stripped of credit, and posted without the author’s consent, as though it was Jerry Media’s original content. Although there had been widespread grumbling about this for many years, this reached a crescendo on Twitter after the launch of the Fyre movies.
This culminated in a widespread hashtag campaign (#fuckfuckjerry) pointing out the many ethical breaches by Jerry Media, which prompted Jerry Media founder Elliot Tebele to issue a public apology online. This apology vowed that Jerry Media was changing its internal policies and that they would credit and request consent of any memes curated moving forward. This mea culpa, however, only mentioned the Fyre Festival and Tebele did not elaborate on how Jerry Media planned to move forward as a responsible organization in the marketplace.
Many communication scholars have tried to identify and illuminate ethical practices for the PR industry, especially in the fast-growing field of social media, including looking at expressions of organizational values, professional organizational codes, and other social norms, to determine best practices and whether or not their existence affects the behavior of organizations and the individuals that make them. Jerry Media runs afoul of some of the big ethical quandaries that face social media communities identified in examining the ethics of blogging, which include but are not limited to: 1) plagiarizing content, 2) nondisclosure of sponsorships, and 3) misrepresenting their affiliations to their publics. The effects of nondisclosure online are particularly damaging to the organization-public relationship. Additional scholarship shows that individual public relations firms benefit from making ethical expressions in the forms of ethics codes or values statements as an organization.
Sourcing timely news articles for an analysis of Jerry Media posed a challenge at this time (early 2019) because fallout from the dueling documentaries is still evolving. In fact, from the time this paper was conceived to the time it was written, Jerry Media’s website was taken offline entirely except for a “Contact” link. Additionally, so much press was dedicated to the failure of the Fyre Festival itself, internet “grifter culture,” and fraud by its primary organizer, that I made a special effort to limit news sources that focus on the fraud of the Fyre Festival organizers and focus on credible sources specifically about Jerry Media.
The purpose of my research was to explore the evolution of an amateur social media marketing company like Jerry Media who experienced outsized growth and ethical failure, and steps it could take to regain credibility in the new media marketplace based on scholarly research of PR practitioners and organizational ethical models.
Organizational Structure and Values of Jerry Media
Jerry Media began as Elliot Tebele’s personal Instagram account, @fuckjerry, but upon advice from a friend, he monetized his popular meme accounts and evolved them into a “full service social media marketing company.” As of 2017, Jerry Media consisted of over twenty employees, including “20 different accounts, 40 million followers across all social channels, a board game, and a digital media company.” Monetization of this social media influence varies by business account, with the firm typically receiving a lump sum of up to $30,000 for an ad campaign plus a $1 surcharge for each individual that interacted with that campaign.
Prior to the takedown of the Jerry Media website, Jerry Media did not detail any expressions of values on their website. As of early 2019, their LinkedIn company page lists a series of metrics and accomplishments, but does not list any expressions of company values other than market domination.
Tebele does not have any formal training in public relations or communication, which could indicate why his company ran so afoul of PR industry standards and ethical codes. With the goal of monetizing the kind of numbers at Tebele’s fingertips, it is easy to see how a young, amateur public relations hopeful might grab for brass rings without observing best PR practices. Nevertheless, the creation story of Jerry Media – “from memes to millions” – represents the growth and dreams of so many other online marketing firms and aspirational influencers that it has wide implications for the future of the growing international business of social media and influencer marketing – and its potential pitfalls.
Jerry Media’s Ethical Breaches
In any advertising campaign, there are always ethical questions present. While the marketing for the festival and the documentary was successful as social media marketing campaigns, they had several issues identified by Jensen in his early examination of ethics in blogging.
First, Jerry Media “fabricated content” that misrepresented the reality of the Fyre Festival. A third party shot footage of Instagram influencers partying in the Bahamas that was used to fuel social content for the Fyre campaign. This footage suggested that many high-profile influencers would be present at the event, and that the event would take place at sites that were not the known final destination (“Fyre Fraud,” 2019). Additionally, they developed materials that depicted a barren gravel parking lot as an island paradise. While entertaining conversations that the festival was an impossible feat, Jerry Media marketed expensive tickets for villas that did not exist. When the logistical issues began making concert-goers nervous, they turned online to the social media team for answers. Jerry Media advised that Fyre organizers “stay away from Twitter,” and began filtering and deleting comments from Fyre attendees expressing concerns and criticism of the event as advertised, in addition to blocking critics online, which had a secondary effect of preventing consumers from accessing legitimate concerns about the upcoming event (“Fyre Fraud,” 2019). Meanwhile, widespread criticism from the meme creation community pointed to Jerry Media’s brazen plagiarism as evidence of their lack of credibility as PR practitioners, including incidents “when original content creators attempt[ed] to claim ownership over their jokes or ask for them to be taken down, FuckJerry respond[ed] by ignoring, blocking, or mocking them.”
Second, Jerry Media’s campaigns did not include proper disclosures about sponsorships. FTC rules require that paid endorsements are disclosed “clearly and conspicuously” and the FTC provides detailed guidelines specific to bloggers and social media influencers on how to do so. Nevertheless, the influencers used in the Fyre commercials and ads did not properly disclose that their posts were sponsored content facilitated by Jerry Media, and moreover, subsequent personal posts these influencers made of photos taken during the commercial shoot further suggested their continued participation in the event that was not the reality (“Fyre Fraud,” 2019). These subsequent personal posts were not the responsibility of Jerry Media, but they nonetheless complicated an already chaotic ethical quandary of Jerry Media’s making. Nevertheless, since none of the influencers’ “Instagram posts – all of which almost certainly result from a free trip provided for the models at issue courtesy of Fyre Fest – include disclosures indicating this, they are likely in violation of the FTC’s guidelines.”
Third, Jerry Media did not properly represent their affiliations when making the Netflix documentary “FYRE” – a documentary produced in partnership with Vice Media (another gonzo millennial journalism outlet with their own ethical problems) which attempts to absolve Jerry Media of harm in the Fyre narrative. Jerry Media’s co-production of this documentary is not disclosed until the final credits. With the surprise release of the damning “Fyre Fraud” one week ahead of this one, the backlash was swift. One critic at the Columbia Journalism Review went so far to call this documentary more undisclosed “sponsored content,” and characterizes Jerry Media and social media marketers like them as inherently “cynical and dishonest.” He goes on: “While McFarland crashed and burned after Fyre Fest, the Jerry Media team not only skirted any accountability for its role orchestrating the disaster, but managed to get Netflix money for presenting the behind-the-scenes story to the world.”
Also troubling is the belief that Jerry Media professionals discussed signs that the event they were hired to promote was not going to happen as advertised and that they chose to proceed anyway. In Hulu’s documentary film, Oren Aks, a former Jerry Media employee who designed and ran the Fyre Festival social marketing campaign under the direction of executive leadership, said there was doubt from the very first meeting that Fyre organizers would be able to pull off the festival as planned (“Fyre Fraud,” 2019). Jerry Media made a statement in the Hulu film claiming that they were innocent of any misconduct and that they were “misled” just like the festival-goers, in direct conflict with Aks’s statements.
While the mea culpa that Tebele released during the anti-Jerry hashtag campaign suggested that Jerry Media had already internally addressed these issues, there is scant evidence online that this is true. Jerry Media does not disclose any ethics statements or expressions of values on their websites, and the apology does not define what policies exist, existed, or have changed. Tebele’s apology also does not offer any condolences or sympathy about their role in promoting the Fyre Festival – which may be because they have been named in a $100 million class action lawsuit for their role in defrauding consumers with their marketing campaign.
Jerry Media’s successes seem to be largely based on the current trend of fawning coverage of gritty tech startups, as well as their talent of performing authenticity online, both of which have the effect of ingratiating publics to the organization. A literature review of the effects of non-disclosure on organization-public relationships shows that there is consensus that interactivity between an organization and the public have “significant effects on relationship building,” notably that the frequent presence of interactivity has the effect of building that organization’s reputation with that public. Relational trust is also built through relatability and the use of a “human voice,” so Jerry Media’s talent at curating and posting highly relatable content encouraged active, often two-way user participation and created an interactive online community with deep marketing potential. The added potential for virality in social media “adds an extra layer of relationship” because the organization-public relationship is modified when individuals can share sponsored content with users who were not targeted by the paid marketing campaign. Because the health of the organizational-public relationship is so dependent on these demonstrations of trust and authenticity, the effects of non-disclosure on the organization-public relationship are deleterious. Unethical behavior “[damages] the organization-public relationship within several relational maintenance strategies,” wherein it becomes difficult for an organization to recover their reputation through traditional means like expressions of positivity, and demonstrations of customer service and client commitment.
Regardless of what methods Jerry Media uses to recover their reputation, they face an uphill battle due to the ongoing breaches of ethical baselines expected of PR practitioners. Baker’s TARES model of ethical public relations conduct was developed in 2007 to evaluate the behavior of bloggers online. The TARES model can be used to assess whether a content creator’s efforts were in fact ethical, by identifying whether said efforts are truthful, authentic, respectful, equitable, and socially responsible. Between content plagiarisms, misrepresentation in advertising, lack of and improper disclosure, untruthfulness and slights of hand in their own narratives about themselves, and failure to self-police when presented with ethical issues through the Fyre Festival, coverage of the festival, and resultant backlash, Jerry Media failed on virtually all of these fronts. Jensen suggests that the development of ethical standards in emerging media will mature in the way “moral standards in many other media industries do:” That after the medium is established and the business world has recognized and harnessed the importance of this new technology, early adopters like Tebele flock to the new medium and “play fast and loose with the rules” until unethical behavior becomes too widespread and reform and regulation are demanded. Whether Jerry Media is the catalyst for reform is yet to be seen, however consensus is building online that Jerry Media are unethical PR practitioners and the results of their misdeeds will be determined in the courts of law and public opinion.
Moving forward, Jerry Media and other new media marketing organizations should consider implementing several organizational strategies to ensure more ethical behavior on behalf of their accounts and publics in the marketplace. Jerry Media should name a head of public relations that is capable of making moral decisions that adhere to industry benchmarks, they should create internal processes that determine whether consent and disclosure are required in their social media marketing campaigns, and they should codify their commitment to moral excellence by crafting a holistic expression of values and posting it on their website as a gesture toward accountability.
The effect of naming a director of public relations that has qualifications and experience to steer organizational morals is many-fold. This person should have training and experience to identify and properly address moral issues, such as to make a call about whether to continue marketing an event that is known to be fraudulent, or to make a movie about that event without properly disclosing their role in it or disclosing that this attempt at reputation management, too, is monetized. Further, a director of public relations will be familiar with ethical frameworks for decision making, and have a “recognition that any decision one makes” that balances the interests of multiple publics “is almost always better” than one that focuses on numerical or monetary goals. This person should have a familiarity with organizational ethical codes such as the PRSA code of ethics and model a commitment to these ethics inside and outside of the board room. Scholars have made the case that public relations often serve as the “ethical counsel to their chief executives and organizational decision makers” and have a moral duty to try to maintain a hand on the wheel.
Social media marketing companies like Jerry Media should create internal processes and awareness for determining whether consent and/or disclosure are required on social media posts. FTC rules require that advertising online, even by influencers, bloggers, and other new media practitioners, must be “clearly and conspicuously” disclosed. Methods of adhering to these rules are always evolving, but a standard example would be to hashtag any paid promotion or free gifts with the tag “#ad” or “#paid.” Other influencers build the disclosure directly into the copy, noting within the post when a company sent a free gift for them to review. Jerry Media has a speckled history of adhering to these rules, but Tebele’s online apology detailed a renewed commitment to consent and disclosure, and their curated posts today do include statements of advertising and credit original authorship of curated memes. An internal policy might have curbed the issue of the undisclosed posts made by the hired influencers, as Jerry Media could have worked with the influencers to properly designate these paid promotions.
Finally, Jerry Media and other social marketing companies must create an expression of organizational values and post it online. Ki & Kim (2009) reviewed literature around organizational ethics statements made by public relations agencies in the United States and found that about 40% of them had ethical statements on their websites. These statements typically emphasize respect, service, strategy, and results, with secondary expressions such as balance, fairness, honor, and social responsibility. These values mirror value codes that are expressed in professional organizations for PR practitioners, but express the goals and values of a single firm. Despite concerns about enforcement of ethical behavior in the field, Ki. Choi & Kim (2010) found that making an organizational expression of values did positively affect a PR firm’s ethical practices for two reasons: firms are capable of enforcing ethical practices among their own employees, and a firm’s code is an “expression of the core ethical values and principles that firm promises to promote and demonstrate through its practices.”
Jerry Media is a new brand of influencer marketing firm in an evolving field, but the story of their rapid growth and unethical decision-making in the marketplace demonstrates the need for awareness and adoption of ethical codes in the field, even and especially for new and emerging medias. Because of the intimate relationship-building effects that social media has on the organization-public relationship, it’s perhaps even more vital that influencer marketing observe ethical codes to prevent deep reputational and monetary losses for the organization, industry, and their publics.