Dead cats and £350m buses

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How susceptible are hacks to flak trickery? Very, I think, sometimes even complicity. There’s an interesting thread here from Sky’s Ed Conway, who uses the examples of the £350 million NHS bus and the GATT Article 24 row.

As he puts it, the playbook is:

“Provoke fact-checkers into dissecting the numbers, provoke interviewers into challenging campaigners on the numbers. Meanwhile every provocation means more coverage of a topic that will galvanise voters, where the passion & the broad thrust trumps decimal places.”

Speaking of Trump, he’s a master at this, regularly engaging in arguments about how rich he is really. Some critics say he’s worth nothing like $9 billion. He insists he is. What comes from this is a lot of air time dedicated to the idea that Donald Trump is rich.

So the £350 million for the NHS claim wasn’t really about the £350 million. “It was about sovereignty,” writes Conway. Only the press really cared whether the claim was strictly true.

The PR trade also like to use “the dead cat strategy” an idea that Boris Johnson attributes to Lynton Crosby Johnson wrote: “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 is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!” Boris is strangling cats as we speak.

Business flaks are good at employing this sort of tactic too. In particular, they’ve foisted on us a narrow notion of what constitutes a successful business.

So hacks are obsessed by takeover bids and whether City expectations have been hit or missed. I think a big part of our job is to shift the game off the flak’s playing field and on to what should be ours.


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