How social media changes negotiation tactics

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Let’s say you are negotiating the resolution of a legal dispute. Often you will start the process by simply explaining your position. “This is what I want, and this is why it’s a brilliant idea.”

Sometimes, even despite the most elegantly crafted explanation, it’s not enough. So you might decide to give the other side an incentive to agree with you. The incentive will either be a threat or a reward.

Historically, the question of whether you should threaten or offer a reward often depended on the strength of your negotiating position. Those in a strong position typically threatened, and those in a weak position typically offered rewards. Those in a very strong position could sometimes afford to make outlandish threats to guarantee compliance (“do this minor thing, or we’ll sue the pants off you”).

One reason someone in a strong position could make such a threat is because a really really bad repercussion was unlikely: the worst-case scenario would often simply be not getting their way. Unless it was an extreme case, being a bully had a low chance of publicly backfiring because mainsteam media weren’t often interested.

Social media has changed that. Now, every couple of weeks a legal threat goes viral and results in public backlash. The internet hates bullies – often even if they have a valid legal claim. A few recent examples:

  1. Where Charles Carreon sued a comic artist for posting criticism of his questionable and threatening “cease and desist” letter, which backfired spectacularly
  2. Where hip hop producer Lord Finesse’s demand for the removal of a YouTube video (criticising his copyright infringement lawsuit) resulted in dozens of people uploading duplicate videos and bad publicity
  3. Where the Church of Scientology sued for breach of contract and the defendant gave public evidence in a pre-trial matter that cast a bad light on the church, the lawsuit was promptly settled and withdrawn after bad publicity
  4. Where a blogger suggested a certain actor might have an STD, the actor’s lawyer’s threatening letter went viral resulting in a public backlash

On the other side of the spectrum, those who respond in a friendly manner or offer benefits and/or free stuff in response to something they don’t like tend to receive considerable success and positive feedback. Where Jack Daniels was concerned about a book cover that resembled its logo and wrote a friendly letter requesting a change and offering to pay costs incurred in doing so, the tone of commentary on the matter was overwhelmingly positive.

The lesson to take from this is that even if you’re in a strong position, it’s a good idea to avoid using threats and punishment. Instead, it’s often better to approach dispute resolution without assuming the strength of your position is overwhelming. Otherwise – you can expose yourself to the risk of being portrayed negatively in social media, and the risk of that negativity “going viral” could cause huge damage.

Our thanks to Andrew Easterbrook for writing this article