Beyond PR

Jun 22, 2012

Dear Gracie: Tips on Handling Protesters at PR Events

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Dear Gracie,

I recently took on a client who has some controversial stances. We’re anticipating that we’ll have to deal with protesters at some point. Any advice?

Protester PR


Dear Protester PR,

Two ProfNet experts share their insight:

“Protesters are one of the challenges that any politician or major CEO faces,” says David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision. How they respond to the protesters says a lot about how the media portrays them.

Protesters show up at events because they want to create publicity and embarrass the public figure, Johnson continues. They want to become the media story, rather than the event or speech that is being held. Protesters also know that reporters love conflict, especially in this 24/7 news cycle.

So what should you do or not do if you are the subject of protesters?

What to Do

1. Let the media know. First, if you are aware that people intend to protest your event, let the media know that, says Johnson. The media should know that you expect protesters will try to hijack the event, and that you are still going forward with it anyway.

A huge advantage here is having a relationship with the press, notes John Oxford, director of external affairs at Renasant Corporation. Unless the protesters are part of a professional outfit, like unions or special interest groups, then they won’t have the same connections as a good press secretary or PR professional.

For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement had a strong protest in numbers, but too often their quotes or message in the media was disjoined and came off lacking a clear reason for protesting, says Oxford.

2. Give protesters their own space. “Welcome the protesters and make sure they have a space for their protest, but try to pack the main area in front of the CEO or politician with supporters,” suggests Johnson. “That way, the media visual the protesters are hoping for is marginalized or even eliminated.”

3. Invite them to speak. The easiest way to diffuse a protest is to invite the protesters up to the podium with you so they can address the crowd and espouse their views, says Johnson.

Most protesters will never take you up on the offer, since they haven’t thought through their position well enough to coherently address a crowd, and by their refusal, they will become quiet. Those who do accept will speak briefly, leave and cease protesting.

Then the media story becomes the speech the public figure was giving, with the protesting incident as a minor footnote, if even that, he says.

4. Have a laugh. “Humor is another way to stop a protester cold in their tracks,” says Johnson.

However, the person using humor must also be seen as possessing a sense of humor, he notes. “It is why a Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter or Donald Trump can never succeed doing this, while a Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan were successful.”

The public figure should address the protesters with a one-liner or quip, he explains. “The purpose of this is to make the protesters seem ridiculous and have the crowd laugh at them. Nothing silences a protester more than when a crowd turns and laughs at them.”

5. Use the power of silence. Protesters want attention — that is the whole point, says Johnson. A public figure who ignores protesters deprives them of the power of recognition, and keeps them in control.

6. Go on the offensive. “Once, after a debate on a college campus, I had protesters follow me to my car yelling,” recounts Oxford. This actually worked against the opposition, because it was out of the realm of the debate, which allowed him to go on the offensive with the press.

7. Pick Your Battles. “One of the best experiences I had with someone handling protesters was with then Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in 2001,” says Oxford.

“There was a large protest being planned by folks in wheelchairs looking to raise an issue they had with the federal government,” he continues. “Obviously, a large group of people in wheelchairs not a public relations battle you can win.”

Instead of ignoring them, Thompson went out to visit with them as they starting protesting. He and his staff spoke with them and listened to their cause, instead of just passing by to give the speech.

“It really disarmed their energy to attack when they saw that he cared and listened,” Oxford explains.

“If you can disarm the protest in a nonpublic fashion, show compassion, or at least reason with the protesters — sometimes you can avoid an ugly event for both sides.”

What Not to Do

1. Do not get upset. “Engaging a protester, telling them to shut up or showing that you are upset with the protesting is the absolute worst thing a public figure can do,” says Johnson. “Such action merely empowers the protesters to continue.” Then the protesters become the focus of the event, and it encourages them to show up at other events.

“Ronald Reagan in 1980, when his campaign was struggling after an early defeat in the Iowa Caucuses, tried to engage protesters and said it was the worst mistake he ever made as a public figure,” he says.

2. Do not be insensitive. Although it depends on the topic and how it’s going to be covered, oftentimes a response can backfire and make the public figure or business cold and calculating, says Oxford.

Sometimes these insensitive responses will become the story, Oxford continues. Like Marie Antoinette’s notorious “Let them eat cake,” to BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,” after the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Only respond if not responding would look worse, instructs Oxford.

3. Do not stray from the topic. “Never go off message during the protest of a tragic event, as there can be legal implications as well as total professional embarrassment often due to emotions running high at that moment,” says Oxford.


Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jastrow75.

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