How to Take Public Relations a Notch or Two ‘Furthur’

The Grateful Dead, the Grandaddy of jam-band music, called it quits in 1995 soon after the death of lead guitarist (and first among equals) Jerry Garcia. The Dead’s 30-year run, which included nearly 2,300 concerts and a unique musical styling best described as “electric Dixieland,” is safely ensconced in the annals of Rock and roll history.


But the Dead’s legacy carries on through Furthur, which was founded in 2009 by Dead frontmen Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Similar to the Dead—a pioneer in “social marketing”  before the term existed—Furthur offers PR and marketing execs a string of lessons on how to sustain your audience and grow your brand.

As I traveled up and down the Northeast corridor in the last two weeks to catch a couple of Furthur shows during its spring tour, I thought about what communicators could learn from the band:

> Respect your audience: Furthur communicates strictly through its music. Aside from Weir or Lesh saying, “We’re going to take a short break,” at the end of the first set or “Good night,” after the encore, the band doesn’t kibitz with the audience but provides them with three-plus hour of music, which is what people actually paid for. Regardless of your market, don’t distract your audience with peripheral and/or disposable information, but the content that means the most to people.

> Don't repeat the same content over and over: While most musical artists have a cookie-cutter approach to their concerts (same set lists, same notes and even the same guitar solos in the same slot), Furthur never performs the same show twice. The band is constantly adding (and subtracting) to its song repertoire and developing new musical arrangements, which keep fans guessing. Indeed, to keep your fans engaged don’t rely on the same material but find new PR vehicles to keep your overall message fresh (without having to reinvent the wheel).

> Use your company’s operation as a vehicle for charitable efforts:  At every show and just before the encore Phil Lesh makes an impassioned plea for people to become organ donors; in 1998 Lesh underwent a liver transplant as a result of chronic hepatitis C infection. Lesh’s donor crusade is a reminder for brands that, in order for their charitable effort to truly resonate with audiences, the effort has to hit close to home and provide a personal connection to the chairman, CEO or company founder, for example. This way, the effort comes off as the real deal and not something the company is doing just for the sake of doing so.

> Nurture the newbies:  Along with Lesh and Weir, Furthur includes drummer Joe Russo and lead guitarist John Kadlecik, who are considerably younger than Lesh and Weir. While Lesh and Weir ultimately call the shots onstage, Russo and Kadlecik are given a wide berth for musical improvisation and exploration. That’s something that should hardly be lost on grizzled PR veterans: Hire younger people who love your brand and are comfortable with your corporate culture, but not so comfortable that they fail to bring new ideas to the table and alternative ways of cultivating your audience, er, fans.

What do you think your favorite band can teach us about PR?

Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1