Shock tactics: PR lessons from the influencer who faked her own death

In the world of PR and marketing, shock tactics can quickly garner attention. But how do you know when you have crossed the line between shocking and downright insensitive?

Poonam Pandey, a prominent influencer with 1.3 million Instagram followers, recently discovered the answer to this question the hard way.

Pandey’s followers were shocked and saddened when a post was made on her account announcing that she had passed away due to cervical cancer… only for the influencer to reveal a day later that she was alive and well.

Pandey was quick to explain that she orchestrated the hoax to raise awareness for cervical cancer. Unfortunately, this didn’t placate her outraged followers who – unsurprisingly – felt betrayed and manipulated by the stunt.

In response to the backlash, Pandey said she understood the frustration but dug her heels in and stood by her tactics. She pointed out that the hoax garnered significant media exposure for cervical cancer, which was attached to 500 headlines in one day.

For businesses, Pandey’s story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of using shock tactics in your marketing or PR. While generating shock might garner a lot of attention, it can also spark questions about the trustworthiness, ethics, and authenticity of a brand.

There is a fine line between surprising your audience and embarrassing or alienating them. This is why any brand that is considering this tactic should always ask themselves a few questions.

Is this topic appropriate to joke or trick about?

Will the audience feel betrayed, angry, or upset when they learn the truth?

Will this PR tactic get me coverage for the wrong reasons?

And perhaps most importantly: will this ultimately hurt my brand’s reputation?

Not all publicity is good publicity, and increased exposure doesn’t necessarily mean people will be motivated to act or change their understanding of an issue.

Snoop Dogg’s shock tactics

Another example of risky shock tactics comes from Snoop Dogg’s recent marketing ploy for the brand Solo Stove. He used tricky wordplay on an Instagram post to claim that he was ‘giving up smoke’, which garnered international interest and media headlines.

But if you read Snoop Dogg’s words carefully, he actually said nothing about giving up smoking any substances (he’s well known as a fan of smoking weed). What he said was that he had decided to give up ‘smoke’.

But in another instance of hype and noise that generates headlines not necessarily resulting in compelling people to act, a lack of sales from the stunt led the CEO Solo Stove to resign.

Interim CFO Andrea Tarbox said: “While our unique marketing campaigns raised brand awareness of Solo Stove to an expanded and new audience of consumers, it did not lead to the sales lift that we had planned, which, combined with the increased marketing investments, negatively impacted our EBITDA.” 

Of course, the difference between this example and Pandey’s is that Snoop Dogg fostered intrigue rather than anger or frustration. Saying you’re giving up ‘smoke’ is very different to Pandey faking her death, and ultimately, Snoop Dogg’s personal reputation and influence have been left intact.

The backlash against Pandey highlights the delicate balance between raising awareness and exploiting sensitive issues. While she may have had good intentions, the quixotic execution of her stunt risked trivialising the experiences of those affected by cervical cancer. For people grappling with the disease or mourning loved ones lost to it, Pandey’s deception no doubt inflicted unnecessary pain and distress.

At the end of the day, the controversy surrounding both stunts ultimately overshadowed the messages that they were trying to send. For businesses who are often tempted by shock tactics, this is a valuable lesson: a thoughtful, considered campaign is always more effective than one that lands you in headlines for all the wrong reasons.

If you’re looking for a PR strategy without the shock tactics, get in touch with our team of experienced PR professionals today.

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