The ‘Dead Chicken’ PR Strategy

Say you were sexually attacked, and your attacker has just been nominated to an important judgeship.

Or an actress who has been assaulted by a powerful film producer who holds your career in his hands.

Or a whistleblower who knows damaging information about a presidential administration.

You think about coming forward, but you know that doing so will mean your life will be turned upside down. You fear the accused will reveal your identity. You know allies of the accused person will launch a series of counteraccusations that you’re lying, or that the sex was consensual, or that you’re motivated by a lust for fame. You may have to move to an unknown location, or relocate your family, or live with the fear that you may not work again.

You know your obituary will have that accusation as its lead.

You’ve seen what happened to accusers before you and, with all of those unsavory potential outcomes before you, you decide to keep your mouth shut.

Dead chicken strategy

That decision may have just been the result of an earlier “dead chicken” strategy that did its job.

When you think about a dead chicken, you may not immediately think of a bruising media strategy, but a recent episode of The New York Times podcast The Daily reveals the intersection where farm justice meets the court of public opinion. It’s called the “dead chicken” strategy, coined by its architect, Republican strategist Mike Davis.

Davis says he developed the approach after listening to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas share a story about growing up on a farm in Georgia. First referenced in the book “Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court,” by Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino, Davis elaborated on this “dead-chicken strategy” during The Daily podcast:

“(Thomas) said when dogs killed chickens, they would take those chickens and wrap it around those dog’s necks. And as those chickens rotted around those dogs’ necks, those dogs lost the taste for chicken. And I think that’s what Republicans need to start doing with the left.”

Dead- chicken strategy

President Donald J. Trump nominates Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh for the United States Supreme Court on July 9, 2018. Photo: D. Myles Cullen via Wikimedia Commons

Given that the White House is embroiled in an ongoing impeachment inquiry, New York Times reporters Kate Kelly and Robin Pogrebin were on the podcast to talk about their new book, “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” and similarities between the political playbook used during Kavanaugh’s 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the tactics being used by Trump defenders during this impeachment inquiry.

The idea, says Kelly, is that Davis sees this as a strategy to counter the “smears and lies” that he believes liberals have told about their political opponents, including Kavanaugh, President Trump, and others who are part of the conservative movement that Davis backs. Further, by giving them a taste of their own medicine, Davis will lead them to “lose the taste for that kind of political war-making.”

The four steps of the ‘Dead Chicken’ strategy

Davis does not get into the specifics, but the reporters offer the four steps they see behind this technique, and the efforts to sway public opinion. They are as follows:

  1. After a quick assessment of the facts, and a feeling the issue can be overcome, Kelly says, you message your “entire support network that you are going to stay the course.”
  2. Turn the accused into the victim.
  3. Cast doubt on the facts and tarnish, or politicize, the accuser.
  4. Frame this in the context of a partisan battle.

There are some lessons to be learned from this strategy, which hasn’t been deployed solely by conservatives.

The “dead-chicken” strategy is employed not only for small skirmishes, but as a tactic to win the larger war. Anyone caught up in such a battle would need a small army of their own, such as an attorney to apprise them of their rights and a communications professional to help their message cut through the clutter.

Simply calling out the strategy for what it is could be more effective than running offense against each step.  (“We really wish we could get to the facts here. Instead, we are faced with a ‘dead-chicken’ strategy of personal attacks and a win-at-all costs game plan that appears to have little regard for the people who are affected by it.”)

Finally, this is apparently a long game. All parties who become embroiled in it must be prepared to counter all four steps. If they are going to be made to “live” with what they said, or accusations they have made, they better know their story better than anyone– warts and all – and be ready to defend it.

You can listen full episode of The Daily’s Republicans’ ‘Dead Chicken’ Strategy on Impeachment below: