by Steve Adubato, PhD

Sometimes, when you negotiate in public, no one wins. Consider the case involving the New York Yankees and their iconic shortstop Derek Jeter, and the awkward and uncomfortable public communication surrounding his contract talks.

This column is not about baseball, but rather about what can happen to the respective brands of two quality brands when things are said in public in an effort to “win” in a negotiation that can’t be taken back after the fact. In the end, actually no one wins.

In writing the book, “You Are the Brand”, I focused on how the Yankees had built their reputation around superstar folk heroes like Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. My point was that very often, when it comes to an organization, the public faces of that organization often communicate the most powerful and persuasive messages about the its brand.

Consider back in the 1970s when Chrysler’s brand was intimately tied to its CEO Lee Iacocca. Chrysler’s television commercials were all about Iacocca. The two were inseparable. Iacocca WAS the Chrysler brand. The catch is that when the individual, be it a CEO or a superstar baseball player, is so directly tied to an organization’s brand, when the two entities engage in open, public and often hostile communication, bad things happen.

It’s no secret that Derek Jeter wants a lot more money over a longer period of time than the Yankees want to pay him. In turn, the Yankees, through their general manager Brian Cashman along with Hal Steinbrenner, son of George and an important player in the Yankee hierarchy, have taken Jeter on in the media. They’ve implied that he is greedy. That he wants too much money over too much time. After all, Jeter is approaching his late 30s.

Further, they’ve encouraged him to test his value in the marketplace by talking to other teams. The implication is that Jeter isn’t worth nearly as much as he thinks he is. In turn, Jeter’s agent Casey Close, has said that the Yankees offer of $45 million over three years is “baffling.” Think about it. The Yankees hierarchy releases the information regarding their offer and discloses that the Jeter Camp is somehow baffled. Why would they do that? The answer is simple. To try to communicate to the general public that their greedy and aging shortstop is clueless about how the average person is suffering in these terrible economic times. The Yankees are implying that Jeter isn’t as great a guy as everyone thought he was. Imagine being baffled by a $45 million contract offer.

The problem is that while the Yankees are trying to pay Jeter less money, in the process, they are hurting his brand and reputation by characterizing him in such a negative way. Assume that in the end an agreement is reached between Jeter and the Yankees, how does anyone “win” if Jeter is now seen by fans in such a bad light? Further, even if Jeter and his team are baffled by the $45 million offer by the Yankees, there is no way you can communicate that in public without looking out of touch and highly insensitive to “working people”. (Those who are lucky enough to have a job.)

The bottom line? Whether it is a high profile, sports related negotiation or a labor dispute between a corporation and its employees, how you communicate at the bargaining table and what you say in public, are two very different things. You can “win” in a contract dispute, but what may linger and what is remembered are the slings and arrows that get played out in public that damage reputations and brands, not to mention longstanding business relationships. When that happens, everyone loses.