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Hell No, We Won’t Go!

Americans have the right to peacefully protest, and protest they will. Don’t be caught off guard.

Whether the target is your speaker, your sponsors, your meeting venue, the topic of the event, or your organization itself, at some point the peoples’ right to express their opinions may come up against your meeting or event. Your response protocol needs to be baked into your crisis management plan.

We spoke with Kristi Casey Sanders, director of professional development for Meeting Professionals International, whose organization routinely conducts pre-meeting briefs on the ground rules for engagement in the event of a protest or other disruption. Here’s her advice:

Don’t be insensitive. The protestors have a right to express their views and to peacefully gather. Work with the facility to give the protestors space that protects them and your attendees.

Safety first. Conference staff should stay away from the protests unless designated to respond.

One voice. Only those people authorized to respond to the protestors or to make a statement to the press should do so. Make sure staff is clear on who is and who is not authorized.

Prepare. Those who are empowered to speak for the organization should, as much as possible, prepare and rehearse their responses in advance. Above all, don’t go off topic—address the situation but avoid conflict. Don’t get upset or take the protests personally.

Respond quickly. Don’t ignore the protest; there may be safety issues involved. The group may be blocking people from getting in and out of the building, and in some circumstances the police may need to be called. As Sanders notes, even if you have to issue a statement saying that you will respond soon, that’s better than not responding right away.

Get ahead of it. If you know there will be protests, consider going to the press first with a statement rather than playing catch up. For example, says Sanders, if your meeting is about stem-cell research and you’re expecting a rally from those opposed, “you might issue a statement on the scientific validity of the research and your organization’s ethical position.”

Sanders shared one nontraditional technique for dealing with protestors: invite them to come to the stage and express their views. Not a lot of people will take you up on it, Sanders says, but if they do, your organization will be seen as open-minded, if they don’t, then some of the power of the protest is diffused.

For much more on crisis management for meetings, read the April 2017 issue of MeetingsNet magazine here.

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