Negotiation & Social Media: Walking an Ethical Tightrope

How do we balance the tremendous potential for the use of social media in negotiation with the ethical concerns that can arise from such use? Let’s start with the standards that held in the pre-internet world and see if they provide sufficient guidance in the rapidly changing social media environment.
Most (but not all) negotiation practitioners in prior years would avoid tactics like lying, attempting to exert improper influence, manipulation and coercion. Irrespective of whether such tactics contradict the instigator’s personal values and standards, they tend to undermine the trust that underlies creating value in a negotiation and facilitating agreement in the first place. Such trust is necessary to share enough about the parties’ interest to engage in honest and creative problem solving, whether one is in the midst of a one-time transaction or in a series of discussions. Further, if and when disclosed, these approaches often backfire and preclude any kind of meaningful agreement, let alone one that is sustainable.
At a minimum, such ethical criteria should apply in the new world of social media, but the multitude of avenues and approaches to the use of social media may tend to blur the boundaries between what is ethical and what is not. This complicates the question of which negotiation-related actions are best avoided simply because they may backfire or cause reputational damage, or because they violate a deeper sense of morality. In the latter case, such tactics should not be used even if there is little or no risk of adverse consequences or of “getting caught.”
A minimal approach would be to follow the law, but that probably does not suffice for such a rapidly evolving sphere as social media. When it comes to negotiating in the midst of a digital revolution, regulations simply have not kept pace with the rapidly expanding set of tactics, data sources and potential for malfeasance and harm from the misuse of social media. Even where governments have tried (e.g., the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulation), their limited legal frameworks around known issues like privacy cannot provide a comprehensive guide for adapting to new situations and evaluating potential tactics online.
While not a legal standard by any means, let’s consider what we might call the “creepy” factor of privacy intrusions. People often do not realize how much information they provide by using digital outlets, whether shopping services or conversational outlets. When they see that data being transmogrified into a dossier of their personal lives, relationships, and habits, they can be dismayed and put off–even where this is perfectly legal. When such “intrusive data mining” is revealed in the course of a negotiation, it can quickly undermine the potential for trust. In the pre-internet era, we would not have countenanced dredging through someone’s trash barrels or stealing their files to learn of their preferences. Would we now feel comfortable dredging through their digital detritus?
Legal concerns also do not address we might refer to as ‘instrumental’ ethical boundaries. Many firms that have explored opportunities to exert influence or shape discourse online found such efforts backfiring after being exposed to public or media scrutiny. It is worth noting that the damage to the offending firm was often greater than to the victim firm. In short, ethical considerations aside, foul play online may not pay in many instances.
As technology advances, more and more methods will become available to businesses, activists and nefarious or opportunistic actors of all stripes, it will become increasingly inevitable that negotiators face difficult ethical decisions that require more careful consideration beyond instrumental factors alone. Surely, we can all agree on several minimal standards about information gleaned through social media:
  • It should never derive from hacking or bribery of an “insider;”
  • It should never be used to embarrass or blackmail, to perpetrate fraud, or to foster or take advantage of identity theft; and
  • Given the clear potential for social media to spread misinformation, ethical negotiators must take special care to avoid directly or indirectly propagating lies.
But beyond these more obvious violations of trust, it would be wise for negotiators to keep a close eye on evolving community standards of engagement so as not to find themselves as ethical outliers in their business environments.
Rather than offering more definite advice in a rapidly changing environment, let’s close this article with some thought-provoking scenarios. In the comment section below, please let me and others know your opinions as to how an ethical negotiator should proceed in each case.
  1. Imagine a biotech firm used social media to learn of very personal reasons an important prospective customer might have for avoiding risks of a therapy’s side effects. Would it be ethical for the biotech firm to emphasize these same side effects caused by a competitor’s product to influence their desired customer’s professional decision? 
  2. Imagine a large company trying to launch a major infrastructure project in a sensitive environmental habitat with strong NGO opposition. If social media uncovered that some of the environmental NGOs had earlier advocated for non-environmental projects or had quietly accepted funding from competitors of the large company, would it be ethical to use this discovery?
  3. Imagine a grassroots advocacy group used social media to identify problematic, but long past social media posts of their adversaries. Despite the several years that have passed, would it still be ethical to disclose this information to the press?
For more about how Lax Sebenius has been working to incorporate a deep understanding of social media to help improve deal outcomes at every level, please see our webinar series: NEW RULES, Part 1 (exploring Amazon’s disastrous HQ2 project), Part 2 (examining my own experience using a blog to fend off a likely fatal unionization drive), and Part 3 (exploring a legal cannabis firm negotiating local politics).