This is a photo of our family cat Diego sleeping, not dead. The photo is meant to illustrate the theme of this blog in a non-horrific way. 

In the PR world, the Dead Cat Strategy – or ‘Dead Catting – is the introduction of a shocking, dramatic or sensationalist topic to divert attention from a more a damaging issue that someone wants to keep hidden from the media, and therefore the public.

It’s particularly relevant – but not exclusive to – the world of politics and is apparently the brainchild of the Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby whom Boris Johnson employed during the 2008 and 2012 London mayoral elections.

In reality, the tactic had been around for years with organisations working on ways to avoid a communications crisis, but it really came to prominence as a result of Johnson ‘going public’ on the nature of the beast.

“The key point …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.” [Boris Johnson 2012, as reported in Prospect ]

Another example from the world of politics is from 2016 when D*n*ld Tr*mp was accused of criticizing the cast of Hamilton in order to distract from a legal settlement, with CNN calling this “a particularly malodorous dead cat”.

Avoiding catastrophe?

Of course organisations will attempt to divert attention from their‘bad news’ and it‘s usually down to the key decision-makers on where to draw the line.

For example, in 2001 the Labour comms strategist Jo Moore faced stern criticism after suggesting the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks were a “good day to bury bad news”.

Moore, who worked for Stephen Byers, the then Secretary of State for Transport, was widely condemned for showing spin at its worst when her news management memo was leaked.

She resigned the following year, but of course the perception that the government is not averse to “burying” news stories during big events remains to this day – indeed I doubt if anyone seriously doubts it.

Cat and mouse

Whether such comments are the result of carefully planned strategic cunning or feline-like instinct is often hard to ascertain but for my non-political clients it’s an approach that I would not recommend in most circumstances.

Many polticians will often be inclined to do anything to avoid negative publicity if they believe they can ‘get away with it’. For the rest of us, I would urge caution when considering such moves. [See my blog Being Interviewed: Practical Tip Number Two]

Let’s face it, the more unscrupulous the person the more likely they are to resort to such tactics and often the cover-up or the dead catting just makes the  situation worse.

I’ll leave the final word on this to the Labour MP Jess Phillips.

Writing in The Huff Post in 2017 :

“..the dead cat strategy only works if people let their attention be diverted away from the main topic…

Laughing, or mocking, or getting angry is getting distracted.

Better to ignore them.”