Using Negative Publicity for Negotiating Leverage


A behind-the-scenes PR tactic that’s occasionally practiced (most often by law firms on behalf of their clients) involves using the threat of negative publicity as a negotiating ploy. In high-profile divorces, disputes involving celebrities or sports personalities, corporate mistakes and the misdeeds of senior executives, the direct or implied suggestion that unpleasant, embarrassing or damaging information will be disclosed to the media often can serve as an effective bargaining chip.

Although it raises the hackles of many PR practitioners who consider the tactic unethical, there’s no direct reference in PRSA’s Code of Ethics to the practice of strategic dissemination of accurate information regarding an individual or company. However, it certainly can be classified as a bare knuckles PR tactic that most companies should not attempt.

Professionalism notwithstanding, I decided to use the threat of negative publicity for personal advantage in my negotiations with BMW of North America involving the lease of my 1992 318i, which over the course of less than a year had 27 different problems – including engine failure, faulty muffler system and a sideview mirror that simply fell off the car. After multiple trips to my local BMW dealer, I felt it was time to bypass Lemon Laws and escalate the issue.

Here’s the PR strategy I applied:

  • I created a simple tombstone ad that read: “Looking for a Reason NOT to buy or lease a BMW 318i ? Call me. I’ve got 27 Good Ones.”

  • I drafted a press release entitled, “Irate BMW Owner Places Ads in New York Times and Wall Street Journal after 27 Problems with 318i,” that detailed the car’s various issues.

  • I compiled a comprehensive list of automotive editors at every major publication.

  • I drafted a letter to the CEO of BMW of North America that said, in effect, “As a courtesy, I thought you would like to see the advertising and press release that’s scheduled for distribution next Wednesday.”

  • I FedExed the letter, the advertisement, the press release, and the editor list to BMW headquarters in New Jersey.

Two days later, I received a call from BMW’s national head of customer service, who opened our conversation with:

“Mr. Andrew. I understand you have a problem with your 318i?”

“In fact,” I responded, “I’ve had 27 problems with the car.”

“Have all of those 27 problems been fixed to your satisfaction?” he asked.

I countered with, “What is BMW’s slogan?”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“What’s your tag line? Your advertising slogan? The phrase BMW uses to distinguish itself from other cars? “ I said.

He said nothing.

“Doesn’t BMW claim to be The Ultimate Driving Machine?” I asked.

His tone of voice changed. “What do you want from BMW, Mr. Andrew?”

“I want a new car.” I said.

He laughed. I didn’t.

“Here’s the deal,” I said. “Either you give me a new car, or I place the ads and distribute the press release on Wednesday. It’s your call.”

After a very long pause, he asked, “Can you give me more time than that?”

I said, “You have until Friday. Thanks for your call.” And I hung up the phone.

On Thursday, I received a call from my local BMW dealership, asking me to bring my car in as soon as possible for “an inspection.” When I arrived at the dealership the next morning, I noticed that all of the parts & service staff were wearing ties. I asked the service manager (who was also wearing a blazer with a BMW logo on the pocket) why everyone was dressed so formally. He pulled me aside, and whispered, “Mr. Andrew, I’ve worked at this dealership for 7 years, and no one from BMW of North America has ever been here for any reason. Today the head of service for all of BMW will be here, and he’s coming to look at YOUR car.”

Bingo!

Here’s what BMW offered me: If I paid for taxes and registration, they would swap the 1992 4-cylinder 318i clunker for a brand new 1993 6-cylinder 325i. I took the deal, and never had a single problem with the 325i while I owned the car.

The lesson in this for people looking to use negative publicity as negotiating leverage, is that you must:

  1. Possess truthful information that’s likely to cause tangible reputational / brand damage.

  2. Convince the other party that you have the ability and intention to disseminate that information.

  3. Demonstrate that you either have nothing to lose, that you have a few screws loose, or both.

Publicity threats aside, the marketing lesson in this for BMW of North America is that by dealing with me fairly, they created a lifelong customer. I believe BMW does live up to its Ultimate Driving Machine claim, and I have leased BMWs since 1992 for that reason. However, the assumption BMW should have made in its negotiating strategy is that there was no way a guy who couldn't afford to drive one of their 7 Series cars would have made good on a threat to place expensive ads in the NYTimes or WSJournal.

I was bluffing. But because I was holding negative national publicity as a powerful card that I might play, I won the standoff.

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