Dan Tapper: Bruce Springsteen and how not to do public relations

This opinion piece from Dan Tapper was published by The Hartford Courant on July 29, 2022. To view the article on The Courant’s website, click here.

I’m an unabashed megafan of Bruce Springsteen, so this is written with a somewhat heavy heart. But it comes from the mind of a public relations professional.

For decades, perhaps no artist has better understood the power of personal narrative than The Boss. He has crafted and fiercely protected his image — a dirt poor kid who made it rich on talent and guts, becoming an icon for millions without ever losing his blue-collar roots. This is an artist who has always sung to and about “his people” – hard workers looking for a break — through three-hour-plus concerts and limitless energy. That has been his story and he stuck to it. And it worked, in large part, because it has the benefit of being 100% true.

At its core, public relations is actually quite elementary: it is telling your story on your terms. Because honestly, who can tell your story better than you?

In good times and bad, solid public relations practices revolve around building a narrative that tells a story, addresses the right audiences and shows that you care. It’s how reputations are protected and enhanced.

So how, in just one week’s time, could Springsteen and his team create such a public relations nightmare?

It began with the announcement of next year’s world tour — his first in seven years — and the initial sale of tickets last week. When excited fans, a fanbase unsurpassed in loyalty, logged on to purchase tickets, they were met with what can only be described as astronomical ticket prices. In some cases, it was thousands of dollars per ticket. Fans were at first shocked and disappointed, but that turned to outrage when prices kept going up, and they sprinted to social media to voice that outrage.

It all had to do with something known in the industry as “dynamic pricing,” which basically removes ticket “face value” from the equation and establishes a ceiling for the highest possible ticket price, based on what people are willing to pay.

But this is not an indictment of the primary or secondary ticket markets. This is about Springsteen’s team failing to see a looming public relations fiasco developing in real time, and then failing to respond.

On social media, in fanzines and other online forums devoted to all things Bruce Springsteen, hardcore fans used terms like disgust, heartbreak and betrayal. Many said they will walk away from him — when you lose your most loyal supporters, you have a crisis on your hands. Especially when global media outlets pick up on it, which they did.

And when Springsteen’s team finally responded, it didn’t exactly make things better. In an empathy-free statement, his manager dismissed the high prices as seemingly being insignificant, remarking, “I believe that in today’s environment, that is a fair price to see someone universally regarded as among the very greatest artists of his generation.”

Really? Tone deaf.

What could they have done instead? Plenty. They could have expressed understanding at the frustration of longtime fans not being able to afford these prices, particularly at a time when budgets are tightening. They could have vowed to look into it or do better next time, or even could have done what New Zealand band Crowded House did two years ago — when met with a similar situation involving “dynamic pricing,” they demanded fans be refunded their money. Any of these actions would have shown compassion for the fans and shown the public that they take this matter seriously. That’s good public relations in the face of a difficult issue.

They did none of that. They doubled down and made fans feel insignificant and powerless. And if the fans were angry before, evidence shows they are positively livid now.

Talent and perseverance built his legacy, and his uncanny sense of how to reach out to engage the public and keep them on his side — of good public relations, really — has extended his staying power. Bruce Springsteen always had the fans on his side, from the early days on the Jersey Shore to long after he became a multimillionaire.

To be sure, this episode likely will not shred Springsteen’s reputation, but it will leave a lasting mark. Especially with long-term fans and those who yearn to learn about the legend.

Perhaps he can recover. But to do so he has to go back to the basics and remember how to tell the story right — with understanding and empathy for his audience. Someone who has built his legacy on telling great stories should be able to understand that.