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Why the Poonam Pandey affair proves that PR not digital agencies are the best guardians of brand reputation

Unless you live under a rock, you can't miss news and opinions about the Poonam Pandey fake death stunt to bring attention to cervical cancer.

Planned and implemented by Schbang, a creative, media & technology transformation company with a digital heart; as it calls itself on LinkedIn. The campaign was implemented pro-bono for fashion, beauty and lifestyle portal Hautterfly. 

Post the backlash, Schbang issued an apology:

Many PR leaders made the point that the Poonam Pandey gimmick is not what PR is all about. It may have done irreparable damage to the reputation of the influencer, the digital and creative agency behind it and the client Hauterrfly.

Not the mention creating a precedent where disinformation is linked with a cause. We have also seen in the past, fake teasers by stars such as Anushka Sharma for Puma. But this latest stunt is far ahead of that.

Nitin Mantri, regional executive managing director (APAC), WE, and group CEO at Avian WE told PRmoment India that, "The destination does not always justify the journey. A line has been crossed here which should have not been." 

He also pointed out that as the statement about Poonam Pandey's death was issued by the official spokesperson, he doesn't entirely blame the media for carrying the story.

Additionally, tech can't help fix disinformation when the source is authentic.

Anik Fouzdar, director, of marketing and sales at elevator component manufacturer, Wittur Group, says, "When the initiation is from official handle then tech can’t do much and it then boils down to ground level fact check."

Mantri further pointed out on Twitter  his discomfort at calling this a PR stunt, "Wincing every time someone labels #PoonamPandey's staged demise as a PR stunt. 

Let's set the record straight: Publicity craves attention recklessly, lacking discrimination or scruples. In contrast, PR meticulously shapes a positive image over an extended period, relying solely on transparency, credibility, and sustained communication with the public and media."

Sandesh Advani, executive VP and lead - government & PSU Vertical stated, "The #PoonamPandey affair raises questions about the responsibility of social media influencers and the media in disseminating accurate information. Moving forward, we advocate for a collaborative effort to prioritize credibility, fact-checking, and responsible reporting, ensuring the public receives trustworthy information."

The recent circus around the fake news of Poonam Pandey’s demise is nothing short of degrading and unconscientious. It is shameful to see people having no threshold for cheap publicity and trivialising something as serious as cancer! This is NOT PR in any sense, real PR is dignified and genuine. Real PR is to work with complete integrity; weigh all the pros and cons of a subject matter; create the right kind of buzz in responsible ways keeping in mind the sensitivities attached to a subject; have the ability to distinguish good from bad and be convincing to the audiences; substantial enough to refuse to be part of cheap publicity gimmicks. Public Relations is serious business, " said Ritu Bararia, national president of WICCI Public Relations & Digital Marketing Council.

Mainstream media response to Poonam Pandey's passing away announcement 

Impact Research & Measurement Pvt. Ltd. (IRMPL) exclusively conducted research for PRmoment India to assess how the fake news travelled.

As per Impact's Durgesh Garg (VP – Operations) at Impact Research & Measurement Pvt. Ltd. (IRMPL)"Poonam Pandey's supposed death is a real-life example of the challenges posed by fake news. The news quickly spread across social media, followed by online platforms, and eventually found its way into print media, adding a sense of credibility to the misinformation."

Impact further added, "Upon examining how this news was covered in English and Hindi mainline newspapers in their Delhi editions, we found that several leading papers reported the story, including The Times of India – Delhi Times, Hindustan Times - HT City, The New Indian Express, Navbharat Times, Punjab Kesari, and others."

Story Tone 

Per Impact, most papers presented the story in three ways: some claimed Poonam Pandey had died, some adopted a sombre tone, and some linked the story to FM Nirmala Sitharaman's announcement about the HPV vaccine in the budget. A common theme in the majority of these reports was the assertion that Poonam Pandey's manager had confirmed her demise.

Did cervical cancer get traction?

Though this was undoubtedly the wrong way to go about it, cervical cancer did get a boost.  As per Impact, the misinformation unintentionally sparked a significant conversation about cervical cancer:

Last year, there were only around 250 web articles dedicated to this crucial health issue around World Cancer Day on February 4th. However, the sensationalized news about Poonam Pandey's alleged demise injected new energy into the discourse, resulting in a remarkable increase to over 1,500 web articles on cervical cancer during the same period this year. It's worth noting that this surge might also be attributed to the FM's announcement in the budget regarding the HPV vaccine.

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