A Valentine’s Day Lesson: How To Pick A Fight

It’s February. Valentine’s Day is around the corner and love is in the air, so what better time to show entrepreneurs how to pick a fight? Or, more appropriately, who to fight? You shouldn’t need Sun Tzu or von Clausewitz to explain that trying to take on someone with considerably more power and resources is a bad idea. Fighting in all its guises — boxing, war, negotiating, litigating — is about leverage. The weaker your position relative to a potential opponent, the less advisable it is to instigate or subject yourself to a fracas.

Take, for example, The National Enquirer, a publication that doesn’t report the news but invents it. Aside from routinely predicting the end of the world and updating its readers on the latest alien abductions (a ship of extraterrestrials supposedly took Louis C.K. and promptly returned him after seeing his act), tabloids like the Enquirer gossip about celebrity love lives. Relationships involving British royalty are often scrutinized. Would it surprise you to learn that Meghan Markle and Princess Katherine have been butting heads since the former married Prince Harry? But the royals are only part of the coverage; everyone — dead or living — is fair game. One of the tabloids (either the Enquirer or a competitor) recently revealed that Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance (who played Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy) had a long-term lesbian affair. No wonder Fred was grumpy all the time.

But now The National Enquirer itself is the news. Its parent company, American Media Inc., and CEO David Pecker [insert penis joke here] first came under federal scrutiny after acknowledging buying stories about Donald Trump’s love life (particularly his extramarital activities) for the express purpose of burying them during the 2016 presidential race. AMI entered into a non-prosecution deal with the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York in which it agreed to cooperate with an investigation into various aspects of Trumpworld. But only a few months later, apparently using the same strategic ingenuity seen in Twentieth Century French generals and the front office of the New York Jets, AMI took aim at Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, exposing Bezos’ affair that led to the disintegration of his marriage. Trump has been a vocal critic of The Post because the paper has editorialized its opposition to administration policies and also features several columnists who have repeatedly noted the utter incompetence and corruption that pervade the administration.

Why would The National Enquirer’s parent company, hobbled by its recent legal entanglements, pick a fight against the world’s richest man? Was Pecker once again acting at Trump’s behest? Good questions. But the biggest quandary is why, after having entered into a federal non-prosecution agreement for virtually identical activities during the 2016 campaign, the publication would engage in the same risk-laden conduct that originally attracted the attention of the U.S. Attorney? And take on an individual with almost unlimited resources with which to defend himself?

It gets worse. Bezos used some of his considerable wealth to hire investigators to determine on whose behalf The Enquirer exposed his extra-marital relationship. In an effort sufficiently clumsy and tawdry for both president and publisher, AMI responded by sending emails threatening to disseminate compromising photos of Bezos if he didn’t both release the tabloid from liability and issue a statement that he “has no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage [of Bezos’ affair] was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Not cowed by the blatant attempt at blackmail, Bezos gave the correspondence to the press. Now AMI again faces the possibility of criminal charges, including not only extortion but also all the original allegations covered by the non-prosecution agreement which it breached by engaging in further illegal activity.

The concept of leverage is apparently foreign to all denizens of Trumpworld. Or perhaps that fine line between unmitigated stupidity and insanity simply doesn’t exist there. But there is a distinct pattern of Trump and his allies picking fights with the wrong people with dire consequences. Several have spoken or made deals with federal investigators only to subsequently engage in inexplicably moronic misconduct putting them at substantial risk of further criminal exposure. Prior to AMI, the most notable example was Paul Manafort, whose bail was revoked when he tried to intimidate witnesses and then, after being convicted at trial and entering a plea deal on remaining charges, exposed himself to possible abrogation of his cooperation arrangement (and even more jail time) after prosecutors discovered that Manafort was still lying to investigators. The Justice Department has unlimited resources; it is difficult to imagine a situation in which an accused party has less leverage or a fight he is less likely to win.

Take it from the smallest kid in his elementary school, anyone who’s faced down a schoolyard bully recognizes how to quickly assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of his position. If suddenly confronted in an unattended corner of the playground by three much bigger kids promising a punch in the nose and atomic wedgie if you don’t give them your Oreos, you give up the damn cookies and live to fight another day. The next time those guys approach you, you’ve got two bags of Oreos, one with real cookies that you keep hidden deep in your jacket pocket, the other in which the creme filling has been replaced with warm mayonnaise, and while they puke, you flee (and with your cookies intact). Then you get boxing lessons and put yourself in a better position to fight.

It’s the same for business owners. Whether negotiating a deal or contemplating litigation, you have to appreciate your relative bargaining position. For example, small ventures have little leverage to change contract terms when negotiating with much larger companies. You need its business more than it needs yours. So you don’t take a hard line and aggressively demand concessions; you use a light touch and pick one or two areas of major concern on which to focus your efforts to make amendments. Litigating against a business with considerably more resources is often a fool’s errand. Even if your case is strong in a legal sense, the time and money it takes to get a judgment (and win any appeals) often make seeking recourse cost-prohibitive. Don’t pick that fight. Sometimes agreeing to a settlement — however distasteful — is the right business decision.

In sum, you only fight the battles you know you can win at the right cost. That’s the lesson the people of Trumpworld never learned. Don’t repeat their mistakes.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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