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The best—and worst—of distance negotiations
May 20, 2020 Negotiation in the News

Unable to meet in person as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, negotiators are forced to make the best of alternatives to face-to-face talks—with varied results. Here’s a roundup of some of the most notable negotiation successes and failures from the recent news.

Droning on and on?

As we reported in last month’s issue, dealmakers who are trying to wrap up mergers and acquisitions are finding themselves stymied by their inability to conduct onsite due diligence. Inspections of facilities and documents haven’t been possible, leading some companies to put talks on hold or call them off entirely.

But multinational beauty corporation Coty may have found a way to allow its suitors to get some of the data they would need to make an informed bid for the company, Bloomberg News reports. Potential buyers are considering flying drones across Coty’s manufacturing facilities to get a closer look at the company’s assets. Coty has facilities in the United States, Germany, Ireland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom, all of which were maintaining partial or nationwide social distancing at this writing. Although Coty had hoped to be sold off by this summer, the process is likely to be slowed down by the pandemic.

The possible use of drones to gather critical information shows how technology can be creatively applied to enable complex negotiations.

A different kind of zooming for diplomats

Grounded by the pandemic, international diplomats accustomed to flying from one capital to the next find themselves stuck in a never-ending series of videoconferences. The G7, the G20, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank are all meeting online, reduced to tiny faces on a screen.

It’s been a difficult adjustment, Politico reports. The United Nations Security Council has been widely criticized for lagging behind other international bodies in addressing the pandemic, with some blaming the inability to meet in person for the delays. Russia initially blocked the group from making decisions online, which resulted in “a crazy system of sending signed letters by email to vote instead of raising our hands online,” Estonian Ambassador Sven Jürgenson grumbled to Politico.

Ashok Mirpuri, Singapore’s veteran ambassador to the United States, complained to Politico that although online negotiations allow a wider audience to monitor talks, they lack the “cues and nuances” that enable trust building and the sharing of confidences.

“There isn’t the same pressure to compromise you would experience if you were in the same room,” Martin Weiss, Austria’s new ambassador to the United States, said to Politico about video negotiations. “It’s easier to hide behind your own screen.” And after her first European Union video summit on March 26, German chancellor Angela Merkel said she preferred “walking around the table” to find out if a proposal was popular enough.

Time will tell whether these savvy negotiators learn to make the best of their current limitations.

Negotiation by name-calling

In the United States, leaders who haven’t been able to tolerate each other’s physical presence for many months are using social distancing as a new excuse to swap public insults.

To counter President Donald Trump’s daily White House pandemic briefings this spring, House speaker Nancy Pelosi sat for 25 television interviews in three weeks from her kitchen in San Francisco, while Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer carried out his own TV blitz from his New York dining room. Given their frosty relationship with Trump, the two told the New York Times that the public appearances are their best hope of passing along useful advice to the president.

In April, Schumer urged Trump on the MSNBC show Morning Joe to appoint a military official to oversee the production and distribution of medical supplies. Trump responded by blasting “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” on Twitter. Schumer mailed a letter to the president repeating his demand. A phone call between the two on the issue led Trump to send the New York senator a “nasty letter” (the president’s words) on White House stationery accusing him of contributing to New York’s coronavirus outbreak by being distracted by the “ridiculous impeachment hoax.” Pelosi penned her own piece of vitriolic mail—an open letter to her Democratic colleagues that called the president’s response to the crisis “weak” and “incompetent,” adjectives that the president then threw back at her in a tweet.

Schumer claimed to the Times that the public baiting motivated Trump to occasionally call on manufacturers to produce needed medical supplies. But more often than not, the back-and-forth name-calling has seemed like a destructive distraction.

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