Blog: Event management
Are you ready if protesters show up at your event?
25 April 2023 minute read
Last week, protesters from climate group Just Stop Oil disrupted the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield, UK by jumping on one of the tables and throwing a load of coloured powder around.
If you’re looking for a connection between oil and snooker, don’t bother. There isn’t one. The group were attracted by the combination of a surprisingly large TV audience and relatively lax security compared with bigger sports.
Wherever you look, protests are on the increase and there’s a very real possibility that a protest might impact your business event before too long.
Whether the target is a speaker, sponsor, your meeting venue, the topic of the event, or your organisation itself, at some point peoples’ right to express their opinions could come up against your meeting or event.
And it’s not just oil companies and banks that need to worry. Recent targets include conferences and AGMs of Amazon, Salesforce, Reed Elsevier, Adidas, Walgreens – the list goes on.
Protests happen fast and you may only have minutes to react. So it’s a good idea to consider the odds of it happening at your event, and how you’ll respond if it does.
Understand your risk profile
You’ll know if your event is high-risk (or low-risk). The tricky space is in the middle – ie your meeting / agenda / guests somehow intersect with one or more sensitive issues – which might not be immediately obvious.
If you have a security team or work with a contractor, they will likely start by conducting a threat assessment around your event. This entails interviews with your organisation about what you do, who’s coming to the event and a study of the venue to understand potential threats and implications.
You can of course make your own risk assessment by doing the same, in-house. A security team will do multiple web searches and monitor social media to see if you, your high-profile speakers, your topic or your sponsors are being mentioned by groups adjacent to any protest activity. If they are, that will trigger a red flag and maybe a call to local law-enforcement for advice.
Look beyond your organisation
There are many potential sparks for protests, from controversial keynote speakers to less obvious triggers. It could have nothing to do with you. It could be the type of organisation or company involved in sponsoring the event or promoting it. Even an exhibitor buying booth space at your event might be enough to attract a protest or demonstration.
What to do if protesters show up
Before you worry about keeping your programme on the rails, or about your company’s reputation, remember that your number one responsibility is safety: primarily that of your staff and attendees. Conference staff should stay away from the protests as far as possible. This is where your venue and any additional security personnel earn their fees.
It can be tempting to ignore a protest and hope it goes away. Bad idea! Most protesters are prepared for the long-haul. They might be causing safety issues, like blocking people from getting in and out of the building, and in some circumstances the police may need to be called.
Know what you’re going to say in advance and be ready to say it early. Even if you have to put out a containing statement saying that your organisation will respond soon to the specific issues being protested, that’s better than not responding at all.
Get out in front of it
If your meeting is high-profile and you know there’s a good chance of protests, consider going to the media ahead of time with a statement rather than playing catch up once it happens. For example, if your meeting is about stem-cell research and you’re expecting a demonstration from groups who are opposed, you might consider issuing a statement on the scientific value and positive impact of the research and your organisation’s ethical position, safeguards etc.
Don’t appear 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.
Topics that spark protest at events
We live in a complex and divided world, so a protest at your event could come from almost anywhere.
That said, there are several hot button issues that automatically put you in the higher risk category. These lightning rod topics include:
- Immigration, globalisation
- Climate change, oil (or other hydrocarbons)
- Defence and arms manufacturing
- Labour or union issues
If your organisation, sponsors or participants could be viewed as being on the wrong side of any of the above concerns, be aware that they might just attract protestors to your event.
If you’re looking to better understand the protest landscape in your particular region, the groups and issues involved and the nature of their past activities, a great place to start is the Carnegie Endowment’s Global Protest Tracker.