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The shelf life of dead cats

What brands can learn from Boris Johnson’s crumby crisis management

If you don’t like the news, make the news. Cornered and squirming, Boris Johnson tried just that last week, with a baseless claim linking Keir Starmer to the failed prosecution of serial sex offender Jimmy Savile.

Johnson’s no stranger to the dead-cat strategy – the art of hurling down something so outrageous and unexpected that suddenly no-one’s talking about the Other Thing. And he’s far from the only felicidal politician – see Trump on voter fraud, covfefe and pretty much anything he’s ever tweeted.

And dead cats work. The Savile claim stole the limelight from birthday cake ambushes and ABBA parties in the No.10 flat. Everyone, even Starmer himself, had to discuss the claim, if only to refute it. (Therein lies another dilemma: explain away slander or deny it oxygen?)

But the problem with dead cats is they don’t live long. What wrote headlines on Monday evening drove away close allies on Thursday – most devastatingly Johnson loyalist Munira Mirza. He can carry on in this vein if he likes, but he’s gonna need a bigger cat.

So what can brands learn from this? Don’t lie, sure, but also don’t avoid. Faced with a potentially devastating chicken shortage in 2018, KFC could have buried their head in their 11-spice seasoning. Instead, they took the problem head on: apologising and knocking up their now iconic FCK bucket ad, probably one of the savviest mea culpas in branding history.

Yes, it was witty, but it was also transparent. And in an age where news sites frequently build in fact checkers and where Gen Z consumers demand unflinching responsibility and authenticity from brands, bluff, bluster and evasion just won’t cut it.

For short-term wins, a dead cat might do the job. But to keep an increasingly clued-up younger generation on board, brands would do well to fess up if they’ve screwed up and take on bad press in a thoughtful and authentic fashion.