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The Battle of the Underdog

Stephen White

Big business has been on the losing side of a number of small skirmishes recently. Two recent examples. Two days ago Tesco lost a planning application to open a supermarket in the town of Hadleigh, Suffolk after local businesses raised £80,000 to pay for top advisors to present their case ( here).  And yesterday the village of Tecoma 20 miles outside Melbourne Australia, hit the international news (here) in their fight to stop McDonald's opening a local branch.

We particularly relate to the little man or the small community winning, always against the odds, in a fight with a corporate giant. Look at the popularity of movies like Erin Brockovich, Philadelphia, and Local Hero. The arguments rehearsed in the movies and in the publicity which the real events attract are almost always emotional – the wickedness of globalisation, the erosion of rights of the individual, the imbalance of availability of money to fight the fight.

But these battles are actually always won and lost on the facts. The professional team in Hadleigh advised that up to 14 businesses in the town would close if Tesco were to be successful, and the local traffic infrastructure would collapse. The local planning committee agreed. And in Tecoma they collected 97000 signatures to demonstrate the strength of feeling against the opening of the McDonalds branch (impressive for a village with a population of 2000) and presented them in a petition to McDonald's HQ in Chicago. The local planning council had been convinced and had already rejected McDonald's application but the State Planning Tribunal overturned this decision and the fight goes on.

It is not only the facts which make the difference; it is also the presentation of the facts. Many other campaigns against big business, with arguments just as strong as those in Hadleigh and Tecoma have not succeeded. The facts were with them, but they failed to make them count. It is often assumed that it is publicity which makes the difference, but beyond local exposure these battles only hit the headlinesafterthe locals had won, or at least were very much in the ascendancy.

Many battles result from different priorities held by the warring parties. The big supermarket offers longer opening hours, more choice, lower prices. The local protesters understand this, but place higher value on the survival of local businesses, selling produce which is locally supplied, in traditional shops with a history, imbued with a community spirit.

And so it is that many buyers and sellers, admiring the way which the local community activists win, spend their preparation time before a negotiation rehearsing the facts, and their presentation of them; reviewing the priorities and the priorities of the other side, looking for advantage or common ground. So that they can change the mind of the counterparty they will be negotiating with. So that they can ‘win’. And so they should.

But they will ‘win’ very infrequently. The difference is that the job of the local campaigner is not to change the mind of their big business opponent, who is just as aware of the arguments for and against as they are.  Instead they have to convince a third party, an arbitrator - the local planning authority, or other similar institution. These people don’t know many of the facts until they are presented by the two sides, and as a result they often are genuinely changed in their opinions.

So the idea that you might be able to sit with your counterparty in a non-confrontational meeting,  expose the facts to them and see the scales lift from their eyes in their realisation that you were right all along is , I’m afraid, a fiction. It’s always worth trying, but where there is no third party arbitrator involved it is always better to rely on your negotiating skill rather than your power of persuasion to win an agreement. 

Stephen White




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