Dead Cat Strategy--Be aware of it | effective communication skills

A blog by Jean M. Schmith

Dead Cat Strategy--Communication skills misused!

What is this effective communication strategy that is used to misdirect? 

Wikipedia defines the Dead Cat Strategy as the "introduction of a dramatic, shocking, or sensationalist topic in order to divert discourse away from a more damaging topic."  This diversion communication strategy is being employed so frequently in American politics (and probably the politics of other nations as well) that it must be addressed--called out, so to speak--so that savvy communicators can recognize and respond to it.  The same Dead Cat Strategy is used by people in everyday communication--in both discussion and debate--and only if you recognize it will you be able to do something about it.  It's clever and can be effective if the listener or viewer doesn't see what's happening.  (Kids, btw, are GREAT at distracting people with a dead cat; it comes naturally to them, and works well on many parents!)

How to recognize the deployment of this insidious communication skills misdirect

Let's take Twitter, for example.  Suppose a United States Senator has failed time and again to get a bill passed--one he promised his constituents he would pass.  The day comes for a vote, and the bill fails--AGAIN.  The senator doesn't want attention drawn to this, so he immediately tweets out his position on whether NFL players should be kneeling during the national anthem.  He comments as though this is truly important and relevant news, and his intent is to get a huge reaction from his base in his home state, so they will not even notice that the bill he promised has failed--again.  The senator, being a smart guy, knows the position of the people in his state relating to the NFL--and he sides with them, of course.  The point is, he brings up a dramatic, shocking, sensational topic (throws a dead cat in the room) to switch the focus from his vote failure to something unrelated to himself--but something about which he can sanctimoniously rant and rave.

Why is this communication skills misdirection important?

It's important because this communication skills strategy is a way to fool people.  It's a way to distract people.  It's a major tool used by people who want to obscure, rather than clarify, lines of communication between themselves and others.  And it happens all the time.  We are continually distracted from issues by people throwing dead cats our way.  So important issues are lost in a sea of dead cats--especially now that Twitter and Facebook have become major means of people talking with one another.  Twitter and Facebook are now primary sources of news, and they make it easy for people to throw their dead cats into the mix.  Let's take children, for example.  Your child has been caught smoking pot, and of course he's been forbidden to even touch the stuff.  You enter his room (not spying, of course--just to say Hello) and there he is.  He's been disobedient; he's done something you see as harmful to a developing brain, and you call him out on it.  Rather than take responsibility, he tells you something like "Well, this household is a great example, Mom.  We all know that Grandpa is an alcoholic, and you say he doesn't drink.  So why does he keep a bottle in his top drawer?  Alcohol REALLY kills brain cells.  Grandpa gets mad and moody when he drinks.  But you don't say anything to him about his bottle in the top drawer.  You don't say anything when he yells at me everytime he gets drunk.  How can you let him do that to me?"  You are dumbstruck because you didn't know Grandpa had a bottle; you didn't know Grandpa was being mean to your son.  You ask your son when this happened and start a conversation about it.  Your concern shifts to Grandpa--and his drinking.  You leave the room and parenthetically and half-heartedly say "And don't forget what I told you about that pot."  But in truth, you no longer care about the pot, and your son knows it.  You are now concerned with the dead cat Junior just threw into the room.  You've been duped.  You didn't use your savvy communication skills (which would have dictated "That's interesting; we'll talk about that later.  Right now I am addressing YOU and your pot smoking.")  The savvy communicator is not misled when the dead cat is thrown into the room, or is launched from Twitter or Facebook.  The savvy communicator sticks to the issue and brings the discussion to conclusion.  Dead cats are trickery.  When dead cats are thrown by politicians, to distract from truly important issues, the result is an uninformed electorate that looks away from issues that need a clear eye and firm hand, and towards issues of scandal, silliness, and sometimes downright falsehoods--that don't deserve a moment's attention in the first place.  You know-The world is talking about World War III, and suddenly someone tweets a story about some senator having an affair.  Where does the focus go?  We're talking about helping Puerto Rico and some important official tweets that another one is a buffoon.  Well, that's certainly more important than WWIII, so the attention of many people switches to the dead cat.  As savvy communicators, let's not be that person.  In private or public discourse, let's stick to issues and never allow ourselves to be distracted by the scandal or silliness dujour.  The trick is to BE AWARE.  Be aware of this; be alert to this; bring the conversation back to where it belongs.  This is a precarious world and we have no time for dead cat distractions when our focus should be on issues.

Communication coach and communication expert Dan O'Connor deals with these topics and hundreds more in his professional communication training online.  To see and purchase his courses click Home


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