Protesters have their place: and it doesn’t have to be at your front door
- Protests can be an effective way for people to make their point and they can be used against businesses of any size.
- Protestors have the right to picket your business but that doesn’t mean that they can break the law or interfere with your staff, clients or prevent you trading.
- Planning ahead, focussing on peoples’ safety and careful messaging can mitigate the effects of protests on your business and maybe turn things to your advantage.
A crowd of people descends upon your place of business chanting slogans and waving signs. They’re upset with your company’s stance on a controversial issue, its workplace culture, a specific incident that occurred or your CEO. Seemingly out of nowhere, you are besieged, your office surrounded, and employees and customers have to run a gauntlet of angry protestors while the press looks on.
Maybe not. This was how one of our client’s days started recently. And this was a small local business, not an energy firm or bank. So protests are a real challenge that any business can face and one that you should spend some time thinking about.
In this case, some former employees felt they had been treated unfairly and they were after the CEO’s head. They had gathered with other former employees to picket the front gate to the site, loudly airing their grievances. The people organizing the protest had received favorable news coverage in the past. Those reporters took the protesters at their word and painted our client as vindictive and indifferent to their issues. They hoped these additional protests would repeat this success
This meant that our client was well aware that protests were planned and knew the dates, times and meeting locations several weeks before they occurred. But, unlike other scenarios where this kind of foresight could have allowed them to prevent the issue, there wasn’t anything they could do to stop the protests due to the protestors’ First Amendment rights.
But that didn’t mean that we were without options. Even though people have a legal right to protest, they still have to follow applicable laws. Protesters don’t have a right to occupy private property, disrupt traffic, prevent commerce or threaten and intimidate customers or employees. Depending on the location and expected crowd size, they may also need a permit.
So there are some restrictions in place that work in your favor but there are also a few proactive measures you can take to blunt the effectiveness of a protest if you find yourself in this situation.
The first step in managing a protest is realizing that it’s something you cannot prevent. It may seem unfair or wrong but, similar to negative social media coverage, it’s not something that is in your power to stop. If groups like the Westboro Baptist Church have the legal right to chant vile slogans at military funerals, then unhappy employees are allowed to wave a few signs outside your business.
So it’s important to move beyond the feeling of this being unfair otherwise you will find that you become frozen and unable to act. However, even though you can’t prevent the protest, you can plan for it.
We were able to meet with our client’s leadership team before the first protest as they had been alerted to this possibility. This allowed us to make preparations and to map out some contingency plans in advance. We also developed a media strategy and shared a couple of key messages for all staff to use. This allowed department heads to prepare their teams before the business opened on the day of the first protest.
This is where the protestors’ desires actually help you.
The protestors want to create a compelling visual for the local TV news which means that they want as big a crowd as possible. To do that, they will likely promote the planned protest across social media channels, online petitions or a web site. In the case of our client, the protest leaders used Facebook to gather support and plan. Sympathetic staff shared these updates with the company allowing us to know when and where the protests were going to take place. So make sure you are looking out for signs of potential protests and then plan accordingly.
In your planning, also think about what the protesters can and cannot do and where they can and cannot be. Our client had a surveyor mark their property’s boundaries which showed exactly where the protesters could and could not stand. This forced them to move the protest away from the client’s property and the resultant media coverage showed them waving signs in front of a residential subdivision. Without this planning, the visuals could have been very different.
Your number one priority should be the safety of your customers and employees. Ideally, a protest is an organized, peaceful effort to attract attention and sympathy to the protestors’ cause by shaming the target of their discontent. But it can be easy for these to become overheated or for other groups to become involved, raising the temperature. That can change a relatively placid protest into an angry mob armed with proverbial ‘torches and pitchforks’. Unfortunately, the ‘hotter’ parts of a protest will get more media attention which can also encourage people to up the ante.
This can happen quickly and it might only take a few moments for things to deteriorate or for confrontation to break out. So again, you need to plan.
First, remind staff that they aren’t to engage with the protestors verbally or physically. Not only does this reduce the chances of an escalation, but a recording of someone in your company’s polo shirt cursing at a demonstrator will only feed the protestors’ narrative.
Secondly, have some crowd control help on hand. If the protest is large enough, law enforcement will probably be involved. In the case of our client, they simply hired a pair of private security guards to help ensure any protesting activity was peaceful and non-disruptive. They also advised local law enforcement of the situation in case things escalated.
Third, think about the protestors’ safety too. This might seem odd but you don’t want a protestor being accidentally hit by one of your vehicles or people passed out from the heat lying on the sidewalk outside your building. So you need to remind your staff to conduct normal operations safely and you might even hand out water and offer shade to the protestors. This can be a difficult balance to strike — you don’t want to make things too comfortable and encourage protestors to stay — but there may also be people protesting who just want their voices heard. This act of kindness might also allow you to open up dialogue.
Fourth, make sure your employees know what to do if things escalate. What do they do if someone forces their way into your offices? How do they report an escalation by the protestors? What should they do if they have a video camera shoved in their face? These might be signs that things are escalating or the protestors may be trying to provoke a heavy-handed reaction that can be shared on social media. Your employees need to know what to do or say in these situations.
You need to develop messages for your three key audiences: your employees, your customers and the protestors. Employees want to know what you’re doing to keep them safe, what’s expected of them and what they can say about the situation. Customers want to know what’s going on and whether or not you are open. And the protestors also need to hear your message. If not directly, then through the media who (hopefully) also want to tell your side of the story.
Each of these groups needs to be addressed separately so think about what you need to say to them and how you’ll do that.
Employees need two sets of information. First, they need to know the basic operational details: is the business open, who should come to work and what to do when they get there. This is fairly straightforward information but you need to think about how you will share that, particularly if you are trying to communicate outside normal work hours.
Your employees also need to know what they can say to customers and guests. Expect customers to ask what’s happening: they’re going to be curious as to why people are protesting your business. This provides an opportunity for you to tell your side of the story but don’t force your employees to ad lib or feign ignorance. You certainly shouldn’t expect them to act as your corporate spokesperson either. We developed a one-sentence message for employees to use which helped share our key message and gave them a way to answer any questions without appearing evasive.
Similarly, customers and the public also need two sets of information. Operational details can be added to your website and as a recorded message that plays as soon as someone calls your main line. This will help reduce the disruption that you might otherwise face if people assume that you are closed. But you can also use your website and social media presence to share your message and to tell your story to the public, addressing and refuting the protestors’ claims where possible.
We developed content for our client’s web site which allowed us to confirm that the business was open as usual while also factually and transparently addressing the issues raised by the protesters. Employees handed out business card-sized pieces of paper with the URL to this web page to help inform and update the public.
Finally, use the media as a way to tell your side of the story. Not only are you speaking to the wider public, but you can use interviews and time on-camera to address some of the protestors’ concerns. Addressing or at least acknowledging their concerns might not prevent the protests altogether, but it might shave off some of the peripheral support and create an opportunity for dialogue and negotiations.
So have a spokesperson prepared to talk to any journalists or TV crews that show up. Make sure your employees know how to contact the spokesperson and remind them that they should not jump into that role themselves.
Remember, protests are only a symptom
Protests can be stressful and bring unwanted media attention to your place of business. However, with some good planning and messaging you can conduct as close to ‘business as usual’ while the chanting and sign waving takes place elsewhere.
But remember that protests are a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself.
Although you can mitigate the effect and disruption of the protests, you will also need to tackle the root cause at some point. So once you have taken steps to manage the protests, make sure you start to tackle the core issues. Until that happens, protests could become a long-term issue that your business has to deal with.