Game Theory Models for Organizational/Public Conflict

Priscilla Murphy (Drexel University)

Abstract: This paper applies game theory to conflicts between organizations and publics. Noncooperative games--the duel (Chernobyl), the game of tag (Ford Pinto), and the escalation game (A. H. Robins' Dalkon Shield)--are contrasted with a cooperative bargaining game between an organization and its publics (Procter & Gamble's Rely tampon recall).

Résumé: Cette étude applique la Théorie des jeux aux situations de conflits ou de crises entre des organisations et des parties du public. Modèles noncoopératifs--le duel (Chernobyl), le jeu de recherche et poursuite (Ford Pinto), et le jeu d'escalade (le Dalkon Shield de A. H. Robins)--sont contrastés avec un jeu coopératif de négociation entre une organisation et sa clientèle (le retrait du Rely tampon de Procter & Gamble).

In The Game of Business, John MacDonald argued that "a game is more than a sport, pastime, or amusement. It is also a model of the real world" (1975, p. xiii). The former corporate communications director of Union Carbide used a harsher analogy: "public affairs can best be understood by first thinking about it as a `win-lose' situation...a zero-sum game in which no one wins except at the expense of the other" (Lewis, 1984, pp. 32, 55).

The competitive-game metaphor is apt to surface particularly strongly during times of crisis when an organization's strategy conflicts with the needs of publics as diverse as shareholders, employees, and citizen groups. Generally, the media and the public relations person are located at the center of this vortex, in their respective roles as spokespersons for the public interest and the organization's interests. Media coverage is cluttered with memorials to such adversarial "games" between public relations and journalists: Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Watergate, Firestone, to name a few.

Game theory has recently been used as an analytical framework for exploring the interaction between the public relations function and the key audiences. Ehling (1985 and in press), for example, used similar decision-science-based techniques to quantify conflict and gauge the costs and benefits of communication with problem publics. Murphy (1987, 1989) used games to quantify decision criteria in communicating about emergencies. Charron used games to explore the balance of cooperation and conflict in a media/public relations negotiation about what information is to be revealed in a given situation. In this context, game theory became an analogy to conceptualize "the elements of conflict and cooperation in the relationship between two partners who participate in an exchange for some specifiable benefit in spite of their divergent interests" (1989, p. 43). The negotiation game transpired on two levels: first, an economic level, "the exchange of resources (publicity and information)"; second, a political level, "the distribution of influence which accrues from the rules of the game" (p. 43).

Charron argued that each new media/public relations interaction should be considered as a different type of game which both players invent anew at each encounter. From this standpoint, " `game' not encompass all encounters involving the two groups but only those which are repetitive [and therefore] lead to the establishment of more or less de- fined rules...which then rather rigidly define the conduct of the players" (p. 46).

This paper takes a somewhat different approach. Rather than treating such interactions as informal games whose rules are invented by the players, it uses specific, formally defined games as genres or templates that function as consistent models for organization/public interactions and expose the hidden patterns in these interactions. Certain of these formal game models are noncooperative games--the duel, the game of tag, the escalation game--where there is little hope for balanced compromise between the players. These noncooperative models contrast with the bargaining game, a cooperative model in which the organizational spokesperson and a key public negotiate a resolution that both sides can live with. It is hoped that these game-theory-based models can improve our understanding of such relations by providing (1) structure, to expose significant patterns in organizational/public interactions; and (2) templates, in the sense of normative behavioural rules for resolving conflicts that take into account the needs of everyone concerned.

It should be emphasized that game theory is a normative, not a predictive, approach. Game theory indicates what rational decisionmakers should do to maximize their gains in conflict situations; it cannot predict actual behaviour because it does not take into account individual irrationalities, imperfect information, or specific real-life situations where "satisficing" may be less costly than pursuing maximal gains. Despite its limitations, game theory's very formalism provides structured models of optimum behaviour that act as templates or benchmarks against which imperfect organizational behaviour is thrown into relief.

Prior work on game theory has been largely theoretical and has not addressed the dynamics of specific "real-life" situations. In contrast, this paper illustrates its game models with certain widely known crises in the U.S. and abroad. Crisis situations have been chosen here because they highlight the issues in extreme terms. But it is worth noting that the same game models can be applied to diverse situations in which organizations find themselves at odds with important publics, even when such conflict does not represent a full-blown crisis.

Premises of Game Theory

Game theory unfolds from the premise that "social events can best be described by models taken from suitable games of strategy. These games in turn are amenable to thorough mathematical analysis" (Davis, 1983, p. x).

Game theorists model strategic conflicts by considering the parties involved as players in a game. Thus one player may be an organization, while the other player represents a key public such as the media, customers, legislators, or employees. Each side has certain preferences and dislikes; each has to select "plays" or strategies for reaching its preferred outcome, given the other player's strategies (which may not even be known). Most theoretical games use mathematics to sort out an array of possible strategies for all players and analyze their effects on each other. A strategy is never considered in isolation: the point is to model which action is best given the probable moves made by the other player.

A particularly useful concept in game theory is the idea of a stable equilibrium among the players' strategic positions. As long as one side thinks there is a feasible way to improve its lot, which the other side cannot prevent, it will change its actions. In game theory terms, the only stable solution to a conflict is a position in which neither player can do better, given the other player's choices, and there are no other points where both can simultaneously do better. The key is to find an equilibrium as quickly as possible, for the longer the players take to reach equilibrium, the worse the conflict will appear to be.

Theorists define broad categories of games across a spectrum from pure competition to pure cooperation. Here we shall not be concerned with games of pure cooperation, in which the players' interests align so well that there is no incentive to compete--an occurrence so infrequent as to be irrelevant in the present context.

More frequently, organizations and their publics interact at the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum: that is, intense conflict and competition. In its purest form, such competition approximates zero-sum games, where the goals of the two sides are precisely opposed so that the amount the winner takes exactly equals the amount given up by the loser. Simple instances of such zero-sum games include poker and Monopoly.

In more complex real-life interactions, the zero-sum approach is generally tempered with elements of strategic cooperation. This conflictual approach parallels the asymmetric model of communication identified by Grunig and Hunt (1984), in which an organization views its public relations efforts as a persuasion-based function designed to get the public to accept its own views. In contrast, a non-zero-sum approach is based on the premise that each side may benefit more by negotiating an equitable resolution that both can accept--by strategic cooperation rather than competition. This non-zero-sum approach parallels the Grunig/Hunt model of two-way symmetrical behaviour, which seeks to coordinate the needs of both the organization and its publics, and which is based upon mutual understanding rather than persuasion.

Still, zero-sum public relations games appear to be a viable approach in situations where it is in some sense beneficial for the other player--media, government agency, public-interest group--to remain unaware of a crisis. In public relations, these situations are well modelled by two subclasses of zero-sum games: games of search and pursuit, and games of timing.

The Duel

Game-theory-based duel models are appropriate descriptors for situations in which an organization attempts to avoid substantial negative impact by remaining completely silent. In an immediate sense, such negative impact could simply be negative news coverage. Negative impact could also consist of the product of such coverage, such as public panic, hasty legislative acts, or stock-market crashes.

In a duel, the crucial decision is not how to act but when to act. A duel supposes that there are two players with one shot apiece. The longer Player A delays his shot, the better his aim will be and the greater his chance of hitting the opponent. On the other hand, the longer he delays, the higher the probability that Player B will shoot first, killing Player A and winning the duel.

In public relations terms, the duel describes a crisis situation in which an organization withholds information in the hope that the situation will be brought under control before harmful word spreads. However, the longer the organization delays releasing information, the greater the chance that the media will discover the situation and deal with it harshly--and the worse the public reaction will be.

The duel model is useful in two respects. First, it enables the practitioner to estimate the cost of excessive procrastination--that is, how long he has before the crisis leaks out on its own. Second--and often more important--it indicates the cost of premature disclosure, of rushing forth with an ill-informed announcement that could inflame public fears, unleash a shareholder stampede, or foster inaccurate media speculation.

Intentional withholding of information appears morally reprehensible, especially in situations where the public welfare is at stake. The international censure of Soviet silence following Chernobyl is a case in point. However, by looking at the initial stages of the Chernobyl accident as a duel between Soviet information sources and worldwide media, we can argue that there are in fact cases where organizations should engage in duels to avert negative consequences of a higher order.

The explosion at the Chernobyl plant occurred early on Saturday, April 26, 1987. While the Soviets struggled to bring the crisis under control, their information sources observed total silence. Although this strategy was later criticized as another example of Soviet stonewalling, from a game theory standpoint silence was a valid and effective behaviour. The tight state control over communication channels meant high odds that news of the disaster, if contained, would not reach the world media. (The Soviets had used a similar strategy to repress news of the devastating Kasli nuclear dump explosion of 1957, about which the full facts are still not known.) Indeed, even if the Soviets recognized at once that a statement would have to be issued eventually, game theory suggests that it would not have been in their best interest to go public at the outset: in duel logic, it is best to take enough time to "aim"--to wait while the crisis comes under control--before "shooting" with a statement.

When the statement did come, its timing closely followed duel precepts. On Monday, April 28, as radiation from the Chernobyl plant reached Scandinavia, probabilities for concealment dropped steeply. Tass issued a statement on the evening of April 28, within hours after radiation levels rose in Scandinavia and Sweden demanded information--the last possible moment before the world-media player was likely to issue its own story.

From the U.S.S.R. standpoint, the duel was a success: the preparation, or "accurate aim" period, was maximized to maintain order and gain information; the "shot," or revelation, was a Soviet initiative; whirlwind media speculation was at least tempered. Since Chernobyl was a successful duel we can only speculate about the high costs of premature disclosure--public panic, social disorganization, and worldwide misinformation. But it seems likely that these costs would have far outweighed the negative press that followed the delayed disclosure.

From such cases we may argue that openness is not always the best response to crisis; that strategic silence, calculated by using a duel model, may in fact contain benefits for many of the parties involved. Chernobyl, then, is a case where application of a duel "template" exposes strategic considerations that call immediate appearances into question.

Search and Pursuit

When an organization duels successfully, we seldom hear about it because the crisis remains internal. More often, an organization faced with a breaking crisis plans no strategically timed shot, as in the duel. Instead, it hunkers down, imposes a news blackout, and hopes the crisis will blow over without coverage. When the story leaks out the company tries evasion, hoping to avoid public discussion altogether--or at least hold off until the crisis is under control. All the while, the media importune company spokespersons for the story.

Games of search and pursuit--variously known as "Tag," "Fox and Hounds," and "Hide and Seek"--have been extensively studied by game theorists, mainly in connection with military applications (see Shubik, 1982). This focus is hardly surprising, since such games pose one player as a quarry who must try to avoid the other player, whose goal is to locate the quarry as quickly as possible.

It is common for public relations practitioners to feel like the quarry in situations where the opposing player doggedly pursues information that the organization cannot or will not give out. Often the opposing player is a persistent journalist, but it could equally well be a public-interest group, a crusading legislator, or a disaffected union. No matter what the opponent, generally the game ends with the organizational quarry at bay.

But Tag can be an effective winning strategy. In fact, a particularly successful--if ethically reprehensible--game of corporate Tag was played by the Ford Motor Company in the Pinto controversy of the 1970s.

In 1968 the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed a new regulation called Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 301, designed to enforce vehicle engineering standards that would protect passengers after a crash. Since leaked-fuel fires were considered a major crash problem, Standard 301 originally required that all cars should be able to withstand a 20-mile-per-hour crash without spilling fuel. At that time the Ford Motor Company was racing to develop the Pinto. The stakes for Ford were high: it needed a subcompact that could counter the growing popularity of foreign cars in the U.S. The Pinto's fuel tank could not meet Standard 301, but given its massive R&D outlay, Ford's management concluded that it was not profitable to remake the design. Thus began an eight-year chase as Ford eluded passage of the guideline by strategically switching directions while the Pinto became the nation's best-selling subcompact.

The most efficient game would have transpired if, after NHTSA first proposed Standard 301 in 1968, Ford had simply waited for the standard to become law and then complied. But the game rules imposed by the U.S. Congress required NHTSA to consider objections raised by all involved parties, thereby changing what should have been a bargaining game to a zero-sum exercise in search and pursuit. Under these faulty rules the game unfolded in five different stages:

  • First the company proposed that fires were not the real problem in accidents--the initial change of direction that threw NHTSA off course. After an 18-month study of Ford's assertion, NHTSA confirmed that fires were indeed a problem.
  • Ford then changed direction again, alleging that although fires were a problem, the rear-end collisions that caused them were relatively rare. Again NHTSA followed Ford on this new tack, with another 18-month study to prove that rear-end collisions were not rare.
  • Ford then switched directions a third time, claiming that although collisions happened, deaths occurred not from burns but from impact. NHTSA then pursued this allegation with another set of 18-month studies that confirmed burns as the cause of death.
  • Ford switched directions a fourth time, attacking the fairness of the government tests and asserting that the proposed fuel-tank standards would impose extreme economic hardship on the company. NHTSA then undertook extensive analysis to weigh the merits of Ford's objections.
  • Eventually the two sides began to negotiate; Ford presented no new objections; Standard 301 became law in 1977, and Pintos with safer fuel-tank design began to be produced that year.

While the Pinto case suggests that zero-sum strategies can protect an organization in the short term, organizations win little admiration in the long run from such one-sided moves. Indeed, strategists often fare worst by refusing to negotiate with the opposing player, thereby turning duels or search-and-pursuit games into far more dangerous games of entrapment.

Escalation Games

At their worst, crisis negotiations show patterns characteristic of an escalation game. Initially the organizational player adopts an uncooperative strategy in order to protect sunk costs. But once they enter the game, players find that it has virtually no equilibrium and they are ensnared in an increasingly costly decision spiral in which they are forced to commit more and more resources with little prospect of finally winning.

A particularly vicious form of escalation game is known as the "dollar auction"--alternatively called the "sucker's game":

Two bidders vie for a prize they value equally in dollar terms....[such as] a $10.00 bill. The bidders in ascending order cry out their bids. The top bidder wins the $10.00 and pays the auctioneer his top bid. But now comes the hook: the second-highest bidder must also pay to the auctioneer the amount of his highest bid. So if the first player bids $7.00 and the second bids $8.00, the first can quit and end up with a loss of $7.00 (the other side netting $2.00) or he can escalate to $9.00 with a potential of netting $1.00 and causing the other side to lose $8.00--unless, of course, the other side also escalates. (Raiffa, 1982, p. 85)

The literature shows that players generally do escalate. After the $10.00 mark is reached, the question becomes not winning, but cutting one's loss. Players can no longer hope to take a profit, but must keep bidding so they can apply the $10.00 to their growing expenses.

Pure dollar-auctions are relatively rare in public relations, because the organizational player generally recognizes the trap and begins to negotiate with the opposing public. Still, the game was played to an extreme in A .H. Robins' strategy to minimize its liability for the Dalkon Shield. The product, introduced in 1970, quickly became the top-selling IUD in the U.S. and 81 other countries. However, its design defects proved so dangerous that in mid-1974 Robins withdrew the Shield from the market. For the next decade, Robins and the hundreds of women damaged by the Shield were locked in a two-player escalation game in which Robins' attempts to hold down costs by denying liability actually forced it to play for ever-higher stakes. The company's intransigence--its unwillingness to compromise by settling with claimants in the early stages--created an escalating spiral of legal and regulatory actions comparable to "rounds" in an auction, in which its original limits were repeatedly overrun, forcing it to set new limits at ever-increasing cost.

The "rounds" proceeded as follows:

  • In 1974, suspended Shield sales undermined profits, but Robins still assumed no liability for damages. Since the company would not move from this limit, hundreds of cases were tried in the courts, resulting in huge--and newsworthy--settlements that battered both Robins' finances and its public image. In dollar-auction terms, Robins gradually realized that it could be forced to bid beyond the "$10-mark"; it began to look for ways to head off future losses.
  • In September 1980, the company attempted to cut future lawsuits by sending a letter to physicians, suggesting that the device be removed from all patients. However, Robins still refused to admit liability or pay for removal. This new hard line failed to stem the tide of costly settlements, and further damaged Robins' reputation: in April 1981 a 60 Minutes segment on "the disaster of the Dalkon Shield" reached millions of people (Mintz, 1985).
  • By 1984 the sheer number and cost of individual lawsuits made it impossible for Robins to determine that year's profits. It then admitted liability for the first time, initiating a massive $4 million advertising campaign urging women to have their Shields removed at Robins' expense. Still, this concession also failed to cut future costs: by mid-1985 the company had paid out over $378 million in damages and over $100 million in legal fees.
  • In April 1985 Robins again abandoned a major strategic limit and announced the formation of a $615 million trust for plaintiffs, resulting in a net loss of more than $416 million for 1984--larger than the company's net worth at the time (Mintz, 1985).
  • Ultimately the cost of the escalation was the existence of A. H. Robins itself. In August 1985, Robins went into Chapter 11, in an effort to stem the lawsuits and consolidate its massive liabilities. In mid-1986, Robins became a target for acquisition, a tumultuous process plagued for over a year by legal issues surrounding settlement of the lawsuits.
  • In December 1987, Robins was ordered to put nearly $2.5 billion in trust for Shield claimants--an amount only $90 million less than the company's worth to its eventual buyer, American Home Products.
  • In January 1988, Robins' acquisition was finally approved. But the auction is still being played; as claimants challenge the legality of the trust fund, it is still uncertain whether the costs will exceed the break-even point.

Is there any way to win an escalation game? Game models like the auction indicate that there can be no clear-cut "win" once the game is joined. However, organizations can at least limit the stakes by setting a "reservation price"--that is, deciding at what point they are going to forfeit the game and pay the price so far.

Procter & Gamble's attempts to protect the Rely tampon show such a fallback strategy. The game began in classic escalation fashion, with the corporate player determined to fight to protect capital already sunk into the product--in Rely's case, more than 20 years of research and marketing efforts (Gatewood and Carroll, 1981).

In 1980, the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta (CDC) opened a highly publicized investigation into a possible link between P&G's tampon and toxic shock syndrome. P&G responded to the original CDC request for information in an escalation fashion by conducting its own investigation which appeared to exonerate Rely from any connection with the disease. In the next round, the CDC published figures establishing such a link and P&G called a news conference to dismiss the findings as "insufficient data in the hands of a bureaucracy" (Gatewood and Carroll, 1981, p. 11). The response to this counterbid was a deluge of negative publicity.

But at this point, the game changed. Four months into the crisis, Procter & Gamble turned the auction into a cooperative game by negotiating rather than continuing to escalate.

Such a strategy models the dynamics of influence in a situation where neither side has enough power to impose its most desired outcome, and where consenses must be developed by repeated discussion. Like the auction, such a bargaining game unfolds with one player making an offer and the other player countering with a different offer. But in the course of bargaining players are forced to seek compromises, so that each round of bidding brings them closer to agreement. The game ends when the two sides reach a point where they cannot improve their lot simultaneously without damaging the other player: each is locked in place by the other's demands. In game theory terms, such behaviour characterizes a "mixed-motive game," a balance between elements of cooperation and conflict that both sides will accept in order to obtain some resolution.

Thus P&G representatives proposed adding a warning label to the product; in return, the CDC conceded an additional week for the company to study the problem. The results of the CDC study were shortly confirmed by an independent research team. Since its own scientists could not refute these results, P&G voluntarily suspended sales of the tampon. In effect, the company dropped out of the escalation game and pursued a cooperative strategy to minimize its losses. P&G worked jointly with the CDC to draft a consent agreement in which both sides conceded points to the other. The CDC allowed P&G to deny any violation of federal law or product defect. For its part, P&G aided the CDC by agreeing to buy back any unused product, volunteering its scientific expertise to research the problem, and mounting a large-scale educational campaign--a premonition of the Tylenol campaign two years later and the Dalkon Shield recall advertising campaign of 1984.

The latter stages of Procter & Gamble's strategy exemplify a wholly different approach to conflict. What had begun as a classic escalation game became a bargaining venture in which everyone's desires were examined and coordinated so that each player could live with the agreement. When we are talking about bargaining games we are really looking at the ways in which both sides in a conflict gradually come to agree on a single version of events, a single perspective. What resulted was a stable equilibrium point that, though not ideal, represented the best outcome for each side given the pressures from the other side.

Benefits and Deficiencies of Game Theory Models

By restructuring organization/public conflicts in terms of formal games, this paper argues that such interactions follow consistent underlying rules. However, these rules are normative: they indicate ways that organizations should deal with conflict, not how they actually do or will deal with it. The gap between normative and explicative (or predictive) decision theories has generated an immense literature that disputes the relative claims of cognitive, motivational, perceptual, and emotional factors in decisionmaking, and calls into question the very existence of a "rational" mindset and the "objective" reality of norms.

Bell et al. (1988) proposed one useful way to bring the normative and explicative together by means of a third approach to decisionmaking: the prescriptive. According to this approach, prescriptive decisionmakers consult rational, normative models for optimizing the interests of parties in a conflict; at the same time, they are willing to bend decisions around imperfect information or emotional factors. Hence game-theory-based models can provide parties in a conflict with prescriptive frameworks to guide behaviour so that courses of action, consequences, and risks and benefits become less uncertain. If an organization can identify the players and the issues, it could use the appropriate game "template" to select strategies that most efficiently and stably satisfy the needs of its constituencies.

From this standpoint, game theory provides an alternate way to examine conflict-reducing vs. conflict-prolonging behaviour. Researchers have argued that asymmetric (zero-sum) strategies generally prolong conflict (Grunig & Grunig, 1989). Occasionally an organization may select a zero-sum strategy for this very purpose, as Ford used the game of Tag to prolong marketing its defective Pinto. More often, zero-sum games drag out a crisis with disastrous results, as Robins' escalation game showed. In contrast, the bargaining procedures associated with non-zero-sum games often bring about quick resolutions of conflict. For example, P&G's switch from zero-sum denial to symmetric bargaining dissipated a four-month conflict with the CDC within days.

Game theory models can also contribute to our understanding of organizational response to conflict precisely because they force comparison between norms and actual behaviour, between the rational and non-rational. Since organizations seldom follow the highly formalized models of game theory perfectly, the game models provide norms for optimal behaviour against which actions can be compared.

At times, a game structure can unveil coherent behaviour from a smokescreen of apparent unreasonable actions. Organizations may appear to be unethical, unreasonable, or inept, because we see only their public actions--their "plays," as it were. If we use game theory to expose underlying rules for appropriate or ethical behaviour, then we are in a better position to make judgments about organizational strategy from the outside. For example, we are in a better position to understand the Soviets' reasoning about Chernobyl by setting it within the structure of a duel.

Further research using game theory to analyze organizations in conflict might follow several different paths. First, by highlighting violations of formal norms by actual behaviours, game structures may help to identify other factors--motivational, perceptual, emotional, and so forth--that shape an organization's decisions.

Second, game models expose ethical issues of some complexity. Because they pose both parties as equal partners in a negotiation dialogue, non-zero-sum games arguably represent highly ethical approaches to conflict. The competitive power-plays that characterize zero-sum games appear more ethically problematical. Nonetheless, the Chernobyl case opens the possibility that strategic witholding of information actually represents an ethical approach to social responsibility, not merely an effort to dominate less privileged players.

Further research might also do more to expand the typology of games, which is far from comprehensive in this paper. And it might refine distinctions between games so that they more closely model the complexities of real-life situations.

Overall, game theory allows us to identify certain decision patterns that follow the guidelines of formal games of strategy. This game framework sets up normative rules for both strategies and likely outcomes, with which the actions of actual corporate players can be compared. It allows us to judge whether the outcomes of those strategies could have been improved and to identify turning points where choosing another strategy could have resulted in a better outcome for everyone.


Shubik (1982, Chapter 12, pp. 368-415) discusses the advantages and shortcomings of using game-based models for real-world situations in some depth.
See Jungermann's review article (1986) for full discussion of the various schools of thought concerning rational decision-making.


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Raiffa, Howard. (1982). The art and science of negotiation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shubik, Martin. (1982). Game theory in the social sciences: Concepts and solutions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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