Negotiating in the Age of Social Media

(a Harvard Negotiation Project initiative)
Directors: David Lax and Jim Sebenius
Affiliates: Ben Cook, Isaac Silberberg, Paul Levy

Given social media’s transformative roles in society from popular culture to business and from politics to international relations, it is odd that the roles of social media in negotiation have been relatively neglected by scholars and practitioners alike. With an estimated 45% of the world’s population on social media in 2019, and with this number growing at about 9% annually, this phenomenon cannot be safely ignored and should be put to good use. The purpose of this HNP initiative is to highlight how social media can drive negotiations off the rails or toward profitable outcomes—and how savvy practitioners can harness this largely neglected factor to advantage.

In assembling a panel on this subject at a 2020 Harvard conference on “Artificial Intelligence, Technology, and Negotiation,” we were struck by the extent to which both scholars and high-level negotiators effectively agreed on two propositions: 1) social media can profoundly affect today’s negotiations, yet 2) best practices and major mistakes remain unclear in practice and relatively little academic research has explored this topic. (An important exception is the stream of scholarly research focused on how different communication media–e-mail, telephone, videoconferencing including zoom, etc.—affect the process and outcome of negotiations.)

Based on research to date, to say that the roles of social media in diplomatic negotiations are “evolving” would be quite an understatement. And what is true for public officials in today’s online era is equally the case for many business negotiators though their colleagues in marketing have long used social media channels and tools. Members of this initiative have repeatedly seen how powerfully social media can influence the outcome of business and financial negotiations—in both welcome and unwelcome ways—especially for negotiations that are squarely in the public eye.

Our preliminary research, heavily based on case studies, suggests that modern analytic tools that draw on the open source information available through social media can be used by negotiators in at least three ways:

  1. To reliably learn in advance and during the process about who the real parties are to a negotiation, both direct and indirect, obvious and perhaps unexpected. Given a more nuanced view of the parties, such tools can uncover a great deal about their relationships and interests, sources of information and influence, as well as how different groups may cluster in support or opposition to a proposed deal.
  2. To wield effective influence both directly—helping to anticipate other side’s likely points, frame messages that will resonate, and avoid those that will backfire—and indirectly—seeking respected sources that can sway the more directly involved parties in a favorable direction.
  3. To mobilize potential supporters and pre-empt, deter, inoculate against, convert, and/or neutralize potential opponents of the deal. In particular, modern negotiators need to analyze their potential vulnerabilities to social media attacks from the other side(s).

As we explore the use of social media with respect to direct negotiating counterparts, nearby influential parties, and broader stakeholders, we should be clear that the term not only includes the major platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, but can also draw on less well known sources such as Strava (for runners), Goodreads (for readers), Classmates.com (for high school alumni), others.

Any user of this kind of open source information must, of course, be guided by consideration of privacy and ethics–a wide-open field of study. Obviously, social media information for negotiators should never be gleaned by hacking, be used to embarrass or blackmail a counterpart, to spread viruses, or to commit fraud and identity theft. While official rules can be found, such as those in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), those who would use social media to learn, influence, or mobilize others in negotiations should firmly take privacy and ethical concerns into account.

Publications from this project include: