The politician and the dead cat

Published: Apr 30 , 2015
Author: Alan Smith

There appears to be a new technique being banded about by politicians in the UK, no doubt encouraged by their spin doctors in the long run up to this May’s General Election. 

This technique or tactic is called throwing a dead cat on the table.

Now no need to get squeamish, the cat is not literally dead, nor has it really been thrown anywhere least especially on the table. The technique refers to a metaphorical cat not a real one, and it means making a comment so shocking that it shifts the entire focus of discussion meaning people can not talk about our think about anything else. Particularly powerful in shifting and gaining media attention.

Two striking examples of the dead cat on the table syndrome are Nigel Farage comments on refusing to allow immigrants with HIV into the UK on so-called health tourism. The other media grabber was the claim that Ed Miliband betrayed his brother in the Labour leadership and would have no qualms about betraying the electorate. This point was voiced by Michael Fallen the Conservative Defence Secretary and took the front page literally in the Daily Mail.

Many negotiators will be familiar with the dead cat tactic.

Imagine you are on the way to a meeting with a client to talk about the terms of a contract to find a dead cat thrown on the table, “You have to be joking, we need a 20% reduction in your price, take it or leave it. Or “We’ve just had another supplier offer the same deal with 120 day terms, you need to match that or walk”.

So how do you deal with the dead cat?

Ignoring it is difficult, but you could try. Conceding could be possible but what kind of precedent would that set? What would it suggest about future discussions?  Saying no and calling their bluff may work, but it may paint the other party in a difficult place which means they lose face, or get you back at the next possible opportunity?

Managing dead cats is a big part of the negotiation process, how we handle information, understand it fully, (just how dead is the cat?) and react to it is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. Thinking about how you will deal with and rehearsing your mechanisms for so doing should be part of your planning process.

The surprise of the dead cat can be negated, at least partially by anticipating it in the first place.

Alan Smith

photo credit: Nigel Farage via photopin (license)


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Alan Smith
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