Changing the Conversation and Dead Cats

One of my favorite lines from the television series “Mad Men” was “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Sadly, the protagonist, advertising executive Don Draper, delivered it in the context of defending one of the worst corporate travesties of my lifetime, the destruction of New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Draper framed the act as creating something new, modern and clean. I’m sure commuters would disagree vehemently.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper. By Source, Fair use,

Today, there is a real person named Donald who constantly changes the conversation. He occupies the Oval Office. Under investigation for possible campaign collusion with the Russian government and obstruction of justice, he condemns professional athletes for kneeling during the national anthem. Criticized over the pace of hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, he attacks the mayor of San Juan, accusing her of “poor leadership. On Monday, with the country reeling from the news of the worst gun massacre in modern U.S. history, he had his press spokesperson deflect attention from gun law reform.

The tactic is known as “throwing a dead cat on the table” i.e. raising an issue so dramatic or shocking that it draws attention away from a more damaging topic. Google “Trump dead cat” and you get more than a million results.

Conservatives frequently deploy the tactic. Sarah Palin talked about “death panels” when opposing the Affordable Care Act. One of my Facebook friends sparked a lively debate when he posted an item criticizing San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz’s T-shirt. A Trump supporter said she was fair game since “liberals” attached the First Lady’s choice of shoes when she traveled to Texas with the President after Hurricane Harvey. Often the issues raised by dead cat throwers appeal to people’s fears and have racial undercurrents.

When I became as director of public relations of City College, I was given a charge to “change the conversation about City College.” I did that, but I deployed a very different approach. I produced and placed “good stories, well told” about what its faculty and students were doing, and their impact on the greater community.

Instead of talking about faded glory, controversial professors and remedial classes; people began to speak of high-achieving students, transformative gifts from alumni and cutting-edge research. Enrollment grew by one third, SAT scores for entering freshmen rose 150 points, and the college raised more than a half billion dollars from proud alumni and other donors. We not only appealed to our base of faithful alumni, but made new fans, as well, as evidenced by the rise in applications and contributions.

Although it may seem at times that our country has gone mad, the challenge is to rise above it. Like Michelle Obama said: “when they go low we go high.” If you have a good story, tell it, tell it well and keep on telling it so that the people you want to reach hear it instead of what your detractors are saying.

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