Monday, January 30, 2006

Negotiating through Media

In a totally connected world governments and others frequently negotiate by public statements they expect to get into newspapers and on TV, and from there to their opposite entities. For example, In January the Israeli government made a public statement through its acting prime minister that it would not talk further toward peace with the Palestinian Authority, now lead by HAMAS, until HAMAS renounces violence.

On its face that looks like a cutoff of talks, but it is not. It is just negotiating publicly. HAMAS is not likely to comply literally, but if it wants to move toward peace, it will make a counter-offer. Perhaps it will agree not to use violence so long as the Israeli government is willing to talk about HAMAS’s ‘just grievances.’ (The latter is my hypothetical, not a HAMAS statement.)

Labor and management, Republicans and Democrats, and other pairings frequently use this channel to negotiate. Why? Two reasons. First, they want to de-escalate but their clients or supporters are in such high dudgeon the representatives cannot be seen in the same room as their counterparts, or they will be seen as selling out their principles. So the idea is to have some talks via the media, spiral down the confrontation, and get to a point where their clientele will accept their talking directly. “We will not talk until they renounce violence” is more peaceful than “We will not talk.”

Alternatively, the point is to intimidate the other side. Then it usually comes with an “or else,” such as “or else Tuesday we will renounce the current contract and start firing union employees.” Either way, however, there are risks.

The big risk is bollixed messages. The media may well change the exact words or thoughts. Mostly that happens by truncation—passing part of the message. Whether by garbling or truncating, if the other side hears it wrong, and it was intended to keep a door open, they may actually raise their rhetoric and make things worse. So the message has to be wordsmithed to be as simple as possible.

The other risk is that the media don’t find the message interesting or controversial—newsworthy—enough and just don’t carry it. What do you do then?

If the message via media was to intimidate, and it does not go through, then the strategy of intimidation may fail. One might then have to deliver a direct message such as a letter, and that usually does not have the ‘ballsy’ quality of a threat via media.

Negotiation 101: You can negotiate via the press or TV/radio/Web, but make sure your message is simple, unambiguous and newsworthy, whether you are trying to de-escalate or intimidate.

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