Thursday, May 31, 2012

10 PR Tactics When Protestors Mass at the Gates

Next time Boeing faces protests from antiwar groups, it might consider what could be termed “milk and cookies communications.”

Demonstrators opposed to the NATO summit in Chicago vowed to shut down the aerospace giant’s headquarters Monday because of its military contracts.

For every committed protester, dozens tag along out of curiosity, says Jonathan Bernstein, principal of Bernstein Crisis Management. Targeted organizations should consider reaching out by serving the protesters milk and cookies, lemonade in the summer, or coffee when it’s cold out.

“Even though these are people trying to block you and shut you down, you are treating them with kindness and respect,” Bernstein says. “If they insist on taking the low road, that can be nothing but great PR for your organization.”

Everybody’s preparing

As Occupy Wall Street-style protests erupted around the country, companies—particularly in controversial sectors such as banking and energy—are preparing for such a crisis.

Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher was pleased that the protest was peaceful, respectful, and fairly short. “From our perspective, it went as well as we could have hoped for,” he says.

Protesters, however, declared victory because Boeing asked most employees to work from home. (Media spokespersons were at their desks.) “Boeing shut itself down just due to the power of our voices and our communications,” says Occupy Chicago spokeswoman Rachael Perrotta.

The tactic was so successful, she says, future protesters might threaten to shut down 10 companies, disrupting business more broadly.

Blecher called the talk of a shutdown “semantics,” saying Boeing business continued as planned. “We’re not shut down,” he says. “All the operations that happened at this office have largely occurred today with people working from their houses.”

Here are nine more tips from experts who advise companies when crises erupt:

Plan and rehearse.

Larry Kamer, principal of Kamer Consulting Group, has consulted with organizations ranging from Chevron to the Port of Oakland, Calif. Last fall a series of protests struck and blocked access to the port.

Kamer, who wrote the port’s crisis plan, says most major companies and public facilities such as airports repeatedly run drills in anticipation of such events. This is particularly true of utilities, mining companies, and others who face the risk of a BP-like disaster.

“I am a believer that there’s no crisis that hasn’t happened before,” Kamer says.

Be sure to research protests, shutdowns, and violence that has broken out in your industry, he says. Key individuals—from communications to legal—need to sit down and rehearse their response.

Control the narrative.

“By responding to each and every protest, it puts you on the defensive,” says Carmine Gallo, a communications consultant and former CNN and CBS News reporter and anchor. “It looks like you’re doing something wrong.”

Gallo has worked with major energy companies and others who are frequent targets of protesters. But just because people start waving signs on the street, that doesn’t mean you have to rush out and hold a press conference, he says. You should, however, have spokespersons available to comment at any moment.

In Oakland, one message to get out was that working-class, independent truckers suffered when their rigs sat idle outside the port, Kramer says.

Offer—and request—respect.

“Express support for their right to state their opinions in accordance with the First Amendment and in a lawful manner,” Bernstein says. “And the other is to ask in the same statement that they respect your organization’s right to continue to do business.”

Boeing did precisely this before and during the NATO protests. Wells Fargo spokespersons made similar statements when Occupy Wall Street demonstrators disrupted a shareholders’ meeting in April.

Wells Fargo VP of Communications Holly Rockwood echoed that message this week. She declined to discuss the specifics of its response in April, saying, “In general, we respect the right to peaceful assembly, and our focus remains on the safety and security of our team members, customers, and the general public.”

Let the cops deal with access issues.

Organizations shouldn’t send out goons to drag away nuns and wrestle with clown protesters who chain themselves to the front door.

“You don’t try to deal with access with your own security,” Bernstein says. “Then you get blamed.”

Communicate clearly to employees.

Draw up an access plan that keeps employees safe, and inform them about it in specific terms. Let them know nothing’s more important to the organization than their welfare, Bernstein says.

Adds Gil Rudawsky of GroundFloor Media, “Employees and executives in a business, top to bottom, should be well versed on the channels of communication within their organization. One of the few things you can control in advance of a crisis situation is the process of and channels of distribution for communicating.”

Use your periscope.

In an emergency, the external communicator has a dual role: offering messages to the public, and acting as the eyes and ears of the company for executives. Communicators must let the bosses know how their messages or actions are playing out with the public.

“They are the periscope that goes up and looks around 360 degrees and sees what’s going on in the world and reports back to management,” Kamer says.

Respond quickly.

You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. In the social media era, you don’t have all afternoon to craft a press release in response to a protest.

“You’ve got to be able to respond within 15 minutes in order to plant your stake,” Kamer says.

Even if the statement is only, “We’re looking into this,” people need to know that the organization has heard them, experts say. This goes for both internal and external communications.

Be transparent.

There needs to be a high level of transparency, both Gallo says. This may mean inviting journalists onto fields or into factories to see what happens there.

Work in shifts.

Don’t keep your people on duty for 36 hours straight during a major crisis, Kamer says. That’s when mistakes happen. Rather, have them hand off the baton.

As for serving refreshments to the protesters, Blecher says Boeing might have considered providing water if it were extremely hot. But he’s not sure how protesters would have received anything from people they were calling war criminals.

For her part, Occupy Chicago’s Perrotta scoffs at the notion that a refreshing beverage would have changed any minds.

“If Boeing tried to come out and serve us lemonade today, they’d get a lot of lemonade thrown back in their faces,” Perrotta says.

Russell Working is a staff writer for

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