The PR Playbook of Taylor Swift

It’s no surprise that Taylor Swift reigns supreme as the media darling of 2023. Her Eras Tour has become a cultural and economic phenomenon. It’s projected to gross $1 billion, making it the most successfully financial tour in music history.

Market research firm QuestionPro estimated that the tour could bolster the worldwide economy by $5 billion, with Swifties dropping thousands on hotels, restaurants, costumes, merchandise and local transportation, a trend the Wall Street Journal dubbed “Taylornomics.”

The pop powerhouse is no stranger to breaking records. Last fall’s infamous ticketing disaster broke the Ticketmaster website and emboldened fans to file a class-action lawsuit for suspected antitrust violations; the opening night of the Eras Tour in Glendale, Ariz., broke Madonna’s record for highest-attended concert by a female artist; a week later Swift became the first woman to headline Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas; and most recently, ticket sales for her concert film, which premieres Oct. 13, garnered the highest advance sales in AMC’s 103-year history.

And for the first time in her career, the megastar has 11 albums simultaneously on the Billboard 200 chart (with four albums in the top 10 and nine in the top 40). Her latest album, “Midnights,” continues its hot streak at No. 5.

Whether you're a Swiftie or not, you can’t deny her and her team's business prowess and savvy communications strategies. If your PR and brand-building muscles could use a reboot, take a page out of Ms. Swift’s playbook and consider these lessons for success.

Control the Narrative

From reclaiming ownership of her music to igniting a media firestorm around a 10-minute song and associated short film, Swift is a master of controlling the narrative.

Since 2019 she’s been in the process of re-recording her first six albums to regain control and artistic autonomy. Tagging each song and album as “Taylor’s Version” prompted her fans to update their playlists and stream only the re-recordings of her back catalog. As a result, the streams of Taylor’s versions have far exceeded originals.

And when Swift released “Red (Taylor’s Version)” in 2021, the re-recording included a never-before-heard 10-minute version of longtime fan favorite “All Too Well.” With lyrics laced with intimate anecdotes, pointed descriptions, and imaginative metaphors of a past love interest, the extended version engaged Swifties to do what they do best: dissect and surmise. As rumors swirled, Swift remained silent, letting her fans weave an intricate web of timelines and theories about who the mystery man could be. This is testament to Swift’s incredible ability to control the narrative, even when she’s not engaging in it.

The lesson: Deliver a clear and consistent message, provide context and framing so it’s relevant for the audience, and listen and engage in an authentic way.

Commit to Personal Connections 

Swift is a master at direct-to-consumer marketing. Through her exclusive meet-and-greets, Secret Sessions (exclusive intimate listening gatherings for fans every time she drops a new album), and active presence on social media, it’s evident that her fans’ wishes are always at the heart of every decision she makes. As a result, her fans valiantly defend her in times of crisis and serve as a powerful PR engine.

For instance, ahead of the “Midnights” release last October, Swift shared “Midnights Mayhem with Me,” a series of videos that revealed each of the album’s 13 tracks using a bingo machine and numbered balls. This kept fans on the edge of their seats, resulting in her most successful album drop to date. Most recently, for the release of her concert film, “TAYLOR SWIFT | THE ERAS TOUR,” Swift cut out the Hollywood middle man and went straight to AMC theaters—a smart business move as it not only got the film (and fans) to the theater sooner but also boosted Swift’s revenue.

The lesson: Understand your customer’s worldviews, interests and aspirations; put yourself in their shoes; invite them behind the scenes; and share the moments, events, challenges and thinking behind what you do.

Lean into Authenticity

Despite her icon status, Swift is effortlessly relatable. Her self-deprecating humor, honest lyrics, genuine compassion and deep interest in her fans’ opinions make her feel like a best friend. She’s unabashedly herself and has an unparalleled ability to connect with fans through real-life storytelling and vulnerability.

Her generosity is also unmatched. To show her heartfelt appreciation for everyone on the Eras Tour, Swift recently gave $5 million in bonuses to truckers, $500,000 to crew members, and thousands of dollars to local food banks. Even non-Swifties have to admire her giving nature.

The lesson: Hold true to your brand values, invest in people who are critical to your success, and communicate with authenticity and transparency.

Incorporate Suspense

Swift loves to engage fans by hiding Easter eggs in her lyrics, music videos, performances, public appearances and promotions. Her latest tour is no exception. The costumes, props, elaborate stage design and dance moves hold clues about future projects, eliciting wild analyses, speculation and fan theories on TikTok (or #SwiftTok) about what these cryptic messages could mean.

Through her storytelling and stagecraft, Swift infuses elements of suspense. On the Eras Tour, she keeps her fans guessing and then delights them by playing surprise songs at every show, paying homage to a fan’s “Bejeweled” TikTok dance when she included the moves in her performance, and announcing the re-release of “1989” (coming Oct. 27).

The lesson: Make your customers co-creators of an experience, surprise and delight your audience, and keep them coming back for more.

Pivot and Reinvent

Swift’s career has been a story of disruption and reinvention. From an aspiring country music darling crooning about Tim McGraw to one of the world’s greatest pop icons, she’s evolved through every era (and album) of her life. Each one represents a distinct aesthetic, creative concept and point in time, from glamorous to edgy, pensive to fun, and folksy to futuristic. Swift has proven that change can be powerful.

The lesson: Don’t be afraid to change course and pivot your communications strategies for greater impact.

While Swift’s communications strategies may appear effortless or even accidental, they’re clearly methodical, well-planned and carefully crafted. By controlling the message, personalizing your communications, leaning into authenticity, surprising your audience, and pivoting when necessary, your organization can master the art of PR.

Lisa Hildebrandt is vice president at A.wordsmith, a boutique communications firm headquartered in Portland, Ore.