When Is A Dead Cat Not A Dead Cat?

A ‘dead cat’ strategy is seen as a communication technique to help distract attention and avoid scrutiny. But some distractions are more effective than others.

The strategy is most commonly associated with politicians facing a crisis and who want the electorate to focus on something else. Often anything else. There is no reason though why others cannot use the same strategy as well. It is not the preserve of politicians.

The term is widely associated with Lynton Crosby, the political strategist, but Boris Johnson himself has written about the use of the strategy. Writing in the Daily Telegraph:

“There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words, they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

But throwing outrage after outrage onto the dining room table will not work all the time. Constant shocks, as any horror film viewer will tell you, can lose their impact. It is a technique that can easily be blunted.

New Labour encountered a similar problem with the perception that it was always “a good day to bury bad news”. They were often accused of trying to hide bad news behind a story that would dominate, either good or bad. If Johnson uses a ‘dead cat’ to shock maybe we can call this Blair’s ‘Insta cat’ an often cute, friendly distraction technique (although Instagram hadn’t been created then…)

There is a world-weary cynicism that can come with a government that constantly seeks to distract attention. The recent issues faced by Boris Johnson are proof of that.

The potential of a number of Christmas parties (or team gatherings with a Secret Santa) during Covid lockdowns, a Civil Service investigation, rebellions over new restrictions and a resignation all meant that when an announcement was made over the Omicron variant, the reaction of many was that it was a ‘dead cat’.

If it was then I don’t think it was a very effective one. Why?

To be effective, it must deflect attention. Whereas this ‘dead cat’ simply served to remind the electorate about the perceived failings on the Prime Minister during the lockdown last Christmas.

Actually, the PM’s announcement over the national booster roll-out has been a better distraction. It is big. It is bold. It demonstrates how big the problem of Omicron could be. It is a national effort (also taking in other parts of the UK) with the military involved (a sure sign of action as far as the government is concerned).

The wording has been carefully chosen. The booster jab will have been ‘offered’ to everyone over 18 by the end of December 2021 – not administered. Even if the variant turns out not to be as deadly as previous versions then the government can show it has acted quickly and decisively. Perfect traits for a government, and PM, under pressure.

But the ‘dead cat’ is not just about the announcement, it should be part of a wider strategy. Are there are other policies to announce? Can action be taken, away from the immediate spotlight, to rectify the unpopular issue? How are announcements made and by who?

Arguably, most importantly though, is the issue of timescale. In the case of the national booster programme, the Government still faces in the coming days a vote in Parliament, a by-election and, possibly, the Civil Service report into the No 10 parties / work gatherings. In other words, the crisis continues.

So, in campaigning terms a dead cat can be effective. In the heat of an ongoing government crisis, it can look like a short-term panic measure, adds to cynicism, and does nothing to solve the real crisis at hand. It becomes too easy to see ‘dead cats’ everywhere.

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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