A PR performance? Taylor Swift shakes it up with her shock and awe online eclipse

Richard Hillgrove

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Taylor Swift has left her fans in shock and awe with her social media and website blackout that was perfectly timed to coincide with yesterday’s total eclipse of the sun.

On Friday 18 August, she wiped her digital slate clean. Her entire posting history vanished in a puff of smoke and, just as suddenly, she’s following no one.

Her 95.4 million Twitter followers, 102 million Instagram followers and 838,458 Facebook friends are all left in limbo, watching, waiting and wondering what life could possibly be like without their window on the world of their beloved pop star, Tay.

The singer herself remains tight-lipped as speculation has been running riot. Has she been hacked? Perhaps she’s walked away from social media just like Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber and Kayne West did. Or was it just a digital colonic after all the publicity surrounding the court case over former radio host David Mueller groping her backside?

Maybe she’s dead? Probably not. Actual dead people have a lot more life in them online than Swift’s social media accounts. Facebook admits that more than 30 million of its active accounts at any one time belong to people who have met their maker. On Facebook, 8,000 people die every day, but their accounts live on.

“Taylor Swift is definitely up to something,” CNN said.

“Taylor Swift is trying to upstage the eclipse and it’s working,” claimed the Washington Post.

Talk about hiding in plain sight. Swift was telling everyone back in May that she wants to make a “conscious choice to disappear” and concentrate on her new music.

Back in March this year, Cosmopolitan magazine was headlining with “People srsly think Taylor Swift is missing, maybe hiding with Richard Simmons. Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

E! news noted that Tay hasn’t been seen in public since early January and hasn’t even posted a candid shot to any of her social media channels since October 2016.

She consciously chose to perform the track I Don’t Wanna Live Forever with Zayn Malik for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack in January. She clearly enjoys playing in that hide n’ seek, Eyes Wide Shut space, toying with her mass audience like a dominating lover.

And the PR impact from her wiping out her entire online history has been immense.

Going cold turkey is an extreme act in today’s online-addicted world, but it’s certainly a way for Swift to press reset and clean her slate before the next chapter of her life – and, of course, album launch.

Straight away, PR savvy fans spotted that it’s all probably a stunt in preparation for her new album. The clever ones, a match for her fondness for cryptic clues, believe she left a message about her next single on her website, written in code – literally.

Techie fans delving into the Javascript code running in the background of her website found a line that outputs "uibut xibu uifz epou tff" to the Javascript console.

Take the letter before the one shown, and it reads 'Thats what you don't see'. Now social media is awash with the news that #TS6IsComing.

Talk about theatre. It’s the sort of thing Michael Jackson might have got up to or Prince. But it just goes to show how social media is the modern-day emperor’s new clothes. If Jim Morrison were alive today, he might have updated his often-repeated quote to say: “Whoever controls the SOCIAL media, controls the mind.” Individual social media followings now far exceed any tabloid newspaper’s paid circulation. Celebrities now have more control over their image and media coverage than ever before thanks to the internet. To stay relevant, once powerful printed newspapers and their digital cousins are now reporting news of celebrities’ social media antics – who’s unfollowed them, who’s favourited a tweet, who did what to whom on Snapchat. Swift’s disappearing act has had a greater impact than anything David Copperfield could have pulled off. Even making the Statue of Liberty disappear for a CBS TV special in 1983 doesn’t match this. She’s not the first to hit ‘delete all’ online, of course. American R&B star The Weeknd deleted his entire Instagram feed in preparation for his Starboy album, and Kim Kardashian took herself fully offline after a scary kidnapping incident in Paris. Swift herself blacked out her website in 2012 and 2014 before announcing albums. The difference this time is that all of her online accounts were washed clean by a digital tsunami. Then suddenly, like a solitary spotlight in the dark, she put up a video snippet across all her platforms. Now everyone’s talking about this fuzzy, glitchy video of a snake and what THAT could mean.

A post shared by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

The video teaser came on the day of the eclipse and just days after she marked the third anniversary of the release of Shake It Off, but others note that Swift was born under the sign of the snake in the Chinese zodiac. She has all the attributes – wise, spontaneous and, yes, occasionally a bit devious.

Snake was also what internet trolls took to calling her. She’s showing she can handle it by owning and becoming it. Hissssss.

Time Magazine says: “The internet is very excited about this cryptic video Taylor Swift just shared.” It’s certainly underlined the how the media landscape has changed.

Vanity Fair professed recently that social media had replaced the traditional celebrity publicist. These days one single post from a celebrity can announce a world tour.

Are we witnessing the death of the PR middleman, no longer required to hotwire celebrities to their fans? The celebs are doing it for themselves, and many are doing it well.

Take George Takei, just one actor whose career has been revitalised by social media. Star Trek’s Mr Sulu might have seen his celebrity status decline and his power as an activist wane if his cult following hadn’t been given the rocket fuel of social media.

He’s able to speak directly to his more than 10 million Facebook fans and 2.59 Twitter followers alone, which means this former helmsman of the USS Enterprise is still firmly at the wheel of his own ship.

He’s become a gay icon whose witty posts have become a cult in themselves and his catchphrase “Oh my” recognisable enough to become a ring tone.

These days any Z-lister can climb the ladder on social media and any A-Lister can take control of their output to reveal and speak their truth, but the PR industry isn’t entirely redundant.

Just as DIY can cause a disaster in your home if you don’t know what you’re doing, so can DIY PR.

PR professionals will often know best how to position a statement, see things in the context of all the other noise out there. We can help the A to Z create continuity and build an effective brand over time.

When you bypass that specialist expertise to go totally DIY on social media, there’s a real danger of losing control. Or becoming president of the USA.

Bang On to Richard on email richard.hillgrove@6hillgrove.com and Twitter @6hillgrove