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Who, What, Why: What is 'kitchen-sinking'?

Kitchen sink Image copyright Thinkstock

"Kitchen-sinking" is the name being given to the strategy used by Tesco for the announcement of its worst ever financial results. What is it and why is it used, asks Harry Low.

On the day that it posted a record statutory pre-tax loss of £6.4bn, Tesco announced that its stock is worth £570m less than previously believed and it has a multi-billion pound pension scheme deficit.

It's a communication technique commonly used by political parties and businesses, although it's not so well known by the public.

The idea is to release all of your bad news at the same time rather than creating a drip-drip effect over an extended period of time.

The BBC's Business Editor Kamal Ahmed used the term in his analysis of the supermarket's situation. The Daily Telegraph described George Osborne as a "master kitchen-sinker" shortly after he became chancellor in 2010 and the phrase was used in the same publication when record label EMI parted company with Mariah Carey in 2002. The Financial Times also used it at the end of 2014 - also in relation to Tesco.

Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, says it's used by organisations when they have some really shocking news they know they are not going to get away with burying - as Labour spin doctor Jo Moore famously tried to do on 11 September 2001.

"You're saying: 'Let's just sweep up every piece of bad news we've got, put it all in one place, take all of the flak and deal with it at the same time,'" he says.

"When you're announcing the worst figures in your corporate history, you know it's never going to be a page two story."

It's the opposite of the "dead cat" strategy where you distract people from something that is garnering a lot of attention. The idea being that, by placing a dead cat on the table, you make people look in a different direction.

"I think everyone is focused on the election campaign so Tesco will have 24 hours of loud publicity," Barnett adds. "But within 48 hours the agenda will have moved on so, in that sense, it has been successful.

"There is a question of to what extent people will come back to their problems post-election. It may just be a temporary reprieve."

Tesco's ploy is not common, Barnett says, but will continue to be used as long as rolling news exists.

"If you know that you have pretty appalling news, it makes absolute sense to get it all out at the same time because the speed and intensity of the news cycle demands that the agenda moves on so you know you'll be out of the spotlight within 48 hours."

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