Dealing with protesters at an event

How would you cope with protesters or demonstrators at your event?

The world is watching our events. Our conferences, exhibitions and dinners can be magnets for protesters and demonstrators. How to respond to a situation like this is something most event organisers have never even considered. But trust me, it can happen to you.

In March environmental protesters occupied the National Museum of Scotland, the venue for the Annual Dinner for the Scottish Oil Club.

The dinner is a fairly standard one with places and tables costing a lot of money, a guest speaker and some entertainment. I’ve organised a dozen or so of these types of events.

From the perspective of an event organiser, this type of event hardly seems likely to be target for a demonstration. And of course from a logistical perspective you would be correct. However…..

Events like this have been targets for protesters and demonstrators for a long time. Maybe you don’t think your event is worthy of such interest, but others might do. And it’s time to think about, and plan, your reaction should others decide to bring your event into their world.

What happens when two world’s collide?

I organised a dinner for the mortgage industry for a few years after the financial crisis.

In 2008 I was running the commercial department for the Council of Mortgage Lenders at the time and we were very conscious that our annual “celebration” could be a target for demonstrators.

Although not the event manager I was in charge of our events and the potential for a demonstration was playing on my mind.

As I pulled up to the venue in a taxi my heart started to pound. I couldn’t believe it! There were loads of photographers standing outside the front door snapping away and crowding round attendees.

It looked like my worst nightmare. I would somehow have to sort this out. But what would I do?

What would you do?

I jumped out the cab, carefully positioned my kilt, and confidently strode towards the throng of attendees and the picture hunting, gang of snappers.

As I drew nearer I noticed that some of the photographers had “Press” in little cards in the rim of their pork pie hats. Something looked fishy.

It was only then that I remembered that the event manager had “hired” some fake paparazzi to “welcome” the attendees.

My heart rate fell back.

And only then did I think about the inappropriateness of not only the fake snappers, but the celebratory style of the event.

It was ripe for a demonstration.

And as the Head of Events, I had missed a bullet and of course, so had the organisation and the industry.

With hindsight we were very lucky not to have made the actual press. 1200 mortgage lenders gathered to celebrate: the year after the industry was greatly responsible for the financial crash!

I think this is a perfect example. I was only doing my job but what I was doing was an affront to some people (and totally justifiably so). As an event organiser you have to be prepared.

I was lucky, but many other planners have been caught in the middle of doing their job and having to deal with demonstrators. This type of direct action seems to be on the rise. So as event professionals we do have to consider our reaction and our responses.

So what should we do?

See your protesters as “extra guests” rather than unwanted ones

As outlined above I’ve been lucky not to have to deal with this issue directly at one of my events, however, I class myself even luckier that I have witnessed a masterclass from a fellow event manager.

It was in the early 2000s. Several demonstrators had camped outside the front door of the Birmingham Conference and Events Centre during the National Housing Federation’s annual conference.

They were there (without notice) to protest about the lack of access to social housing for persons with disabilities.

And this is her masterclass on dealing with demonstrators:

  • Firstly, she acknowledged their right to protest
  • Secondly she introduced herself as the events manager
  • Thirdly, she took the time to engage and listen to them
  • The next thing she did was promise them that their time and effort had not been wasted. She told them she would ask the NHF Chief Executive to meet with them as soon as they moved to another area of the building
  • She told them she had two priorities, first was the safety of her 600 attendees and second was the need to find someone who could address their issues

In only a few moments she had calmed a situation that could have easily have gotten out of hand.

I learned a lot that day.

What she did was treat those demonstrators as “extra guests”, rather than some unwanted, unsavoury crowd.

To this day her actions define the poise that I strive to find at my events.

Now, of course, not all of us are so lucky to have this level of magnificence! So how can we be confident we could have such a positive outcome?

Well, the best thing to do is to spend time planning the response should this happen at your event. I think the above approach gives you a good place to start.

I must add though, you should be ready to call the police on any protester that acts violently.

Make sure you have senior management support and everyone knows what should happen in the, I have to stress, unlikely situation that your event becomes the focus for a demonstration.

You should draft a plan and ask that senior management to sign it off.

But want about your actual guests?

It is very unlikely that any protest with impact on any of your guests. Maybe their fine meal will be punctured for a few moments, but that’s the price of democracy! They will be be fine.

However, there is the potential for guests to get out of hand. And for those who act inappropriately you should have a plan too.

My advice would be to ensure that you have the support of senior management to eject and / or call the police on ANY GUEST who acts violently towards any protester.

Unfortunately, I have an example. A Conservative Member of the UK Parliament Mark Field dealt with a protester in a totally over the top manner in June.

Mr Field no doubt returned to his table after ejecting the female protester. Have a watch and ask yourself, what would you have done as the event manager at this event?

Well, I can’t be sure, but I think the experienced events manager that I hold in high regard would have called the police. And where she leads, I would follow.

We have a demanding enough job – the 5th most stressful job in the world – no less.

So dealing with protesters at any event would be a massive added stress.

But we have to be aware that many sectors and many companies are legitimate targets for dissent and part of our every expanding role, is to be aware of our wider role in society.