On April 24, hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators converged on San Francisco to protest the annual Wells Fargo shareholder meeting. The protestors gathered to oppose, what they felt to be, Wells Fargo’s excessive executive pay and high rate of home foreclosures. About 30 activists were able to gain access to the meeting and disrupt its proceedings. The next day, a similar protest was held in Detroit outside of General Electric’s shareholder meeting. Regrettably, these two demonstrations do not look like isolated incidents. The Occupy movement is planning a series of similar events across the country in more than 115 cities.
Demonstrations and political protests have the capacity to harm companies on a number of fronts. Not only do they disrupt corporate operations, they also often result in reputational harm. In extreme cases, they have the potential to cause significant property damage and may even threaten the safety of personnel. However, there are a number of things firms can do in order to mitigate the risk caused by protestors.
10 Tips for Managing Demonstrations and Protests
1. Assessing the Risk
The first thing a firm should do to mitigate the threat of protests is to try to assess its risk of being targeted. Political movements tend to be fickle, and the corporate paragons of today can quickly become the social enemies of tomorrow. As such, firms should be aware of the political and cultural climate they operate in. In today’s world, firms in the banking and financial industry tend to be particularly unpopular among activist groups. Companies with particularly generous bonuses and executive pay may also be targets. Firms at increased risk of becoming a target should develop plans and protocols for dealing with demonstrations and political activists.
2. Tracking the Protest
Protests do not materialize overnight; they are generally planned well in advance. In fact, most protests are advertised for weeks (if not months) beforehand in order to get the word out to the maximum number of sympathizers. Obviously, companies can manage a protest better if they can anticipate it. Firms at risk should monitor the news, Internet, and social media in order to determine if their organization is a target of demonstrators. In fact, several banks are already working in conjunction with police to track the Occupy Wall Street movement in an effort to better prepare for the next large demonstration.
3. Utilizing a Guest List
As most event planners know, managing a large gathering of people is difficult without a well-organized and comprehensive guest list. However, these lists have a security function as well. They are an effective tool for preventing troublemakers from disrupting critical meetings and conferences. In addition to guest lists, it is a good idea to have all attendees register beforehand. Not only does this facilitate planning, it prevents individuals from entering under the assumed name of a non-attending invitee.
4. Limited Entrances, Multiple Exits
To the extent possible, event planners should limit the number of entrances into the meeting area. Having multiple entrances requires more security personnel and makes it more difficult to monitor who enters and exits an event. However, limiting the number of entrances does not mean limiting the number of exits. Conferences and meetings should have multiple exits in order to facilitate rapid evacuation in the event of fire or other emergency.
5. Reception Desks
Event managers should ensure that each entrance into a meeting area has a reception desk manned by both security personnel and receptionists. It is important to remember that here are many protest groups who would like to provoke a company representative into losing their cool and/or saying something embarrassing. As a result, receptionists should be trained to deal with difficult and confrontational individuals.
Barriers can be incredibly useful tools at large conferences and conventions. They can facilitate movement, funnel people towards established entry points, and keep unwanted individuals from disrupting the gathering. Additionally, barriers can be used in the meeting area itself to protect and separate VIPs from “the crowd.” Barriers do not necessarily have to be walls, fences, or other large obstructions. Even light barriers such as ropes, curtains, and decorative objects can act as “psychological barriers,” keeping people contained and out of unauthorized areas.
7. Escort-Off Protocol
There are many cases were event managers encounter difficult and hostile individuals that cannot be placated through words alone. In these cases, security personnel will have to escort these disruptive persons off the property in a swift, efficient, and safe manner. Unfortunately, some activists may intentionally try to provoke security personnel into committing a violent act. In other instances, protestors may do everything in their power to exaggerate their situation by screaming hysterically, shouting slogans, or acting out in other ways. Therefore, managers should establish procedures for these contingencies.
8. Coordination with Police
Sometimes protests can become large and turbulent. Firms may not be able to manage these events on their own and may have to turn to law enforcement for assistance. However, actions such as these tend to be difficult to coordinate in the heat of the moment. As a result, companies at risk should coordinate with the local law enforcement authorities well beforehand.
9. Medical Planning
Medical emergencies can happen anywhere at anytime. However, medical emergencies are of greater concern during large demonstrations. Crowds can impede the evacuation of the sick or injured. Furthermore, they can also block the entry of paramedics and other medical personnel. As such, event planners should develop plans that allow for clear routes of escape during medical emergencies.
10. Crisis Planning
Although most protests tend to be nonviolent, there is always the threat that panic or riot could sweep over the crowd. Additionally, there are sometimes extreme dissidents within activist groups that are willing to resort to violence. As a result, planners should anticipate a number of contingencies. They should attempt to identify escape routes, build good crowd control plans, and understand how to mitigate the threats posed by bombs, firearms, and other weapons. Additionally, there should be an incident aftermath plan in place if an unfortunate event does transpire.