Imagine a picket line forming by your door. This is a situation I wouldn’t even wish upon the competitors of my clients.
Now imagine cars with media logos parking next to the picket line and your phone beginning to ring. Your boss or client is on the other line and the only instructions you are given are: Deal with it. This is a real gauntlet to run even for seasoned communication experts.
Picket lines are rarely unexpected. Usually they come at the crescendo of a longer conflict. They usually go hand in hand with the tactic of taking up the position of a victim: “One and all and especially people in power (be it politicians, judges or public figures), look at us! We are under attack. Help us!”
In our particular case, the people picketing are placing themselves in the role of a victim, they push you (or your client) into the role of an aggressor and are calling for a savior to punish the aggressor and save the victim.
What do you do?
First and foremost, you need to analyze the situation.
Don’t be fooled. Just because people are picketing by your door does not necessarily mean that you are at fault. Before taking any action, you need to take stock of the situation, understand the problem and who is actually at fault.
Don’t be swayed by your boss or client reassuring you that everything was done above board. People often do not think in such terms. Most of the time they are displeased with completely legal and valid actions that they view as being unethical. A classic example is the myriad of protests against low wages. More often than not the wages in question are legal and based on contracts that were signed voluntarily by the employees. However, these facts do not stop people from being displeased with the wages and rising up against them. Nothing can be done about that.
At the risk of sounding cynical, it is important to note that sometimes people are unware of the full picture and can be swayed by organizers that are winding them up.
Do you have proof of that? If so, then you can take up an offensive stance, however it is important to note that this is a very risky move. Paradoxically the picket or protest that is damaging you is safeguarding the organizers. In a conflict between a group of people and an organization, the wider public usually sympathizes with the people, even in situations where they might be in the wrong.
One way or the other, information on who exactly is behind the protest is crucial as it helps you to piece the whole situation together and predict how it might progress.
Don’t be naive, whatever you do and however you react, you have lost the first round. However, as mentioned before, a picket is just a part of larger and longer lasting crisis. You need to constantly look for possibilities to localize the problem. What, if anything, can you do, in order to ensure that the least amount of people see and know about it? What can you do in order to make sure that the initial protest is not followed up by a second and a third one?
An angry and emotional picket or protest is a juicy scoop for the media. There is the emotional charge of the angry and hurt people, the headline worthy slogans on the signs and a very clear and concrete villain. Is it possible to transfer all of this into a calm room and sit down by the negotiating table, to offer constructive ways out of the whole debacle?
There are several major strategies that can be taken, however I should be noted that not a single one of them can give you a full 100% victory while also keeping your reputation intact. Thus it is paramount to try and guess the actions of your opposition and the possible outcomes of it i.e. what course of action can help you ride the crisis out with the least amount of losses. Why the pessimism? Because your opposition is strong and clever enough to organize a picket line and also to get the media involved.
However, reality is rarely as simple and cut and dry as this. Most often than not you will have to use a synthesis of several strategies.
The key mistake company heads usually do when they see a picket line forming by their door is gearing up for war. An aggressive strategy can work only if the media completely ignores the protest, thus not allowing for it to take flight or the people on the picket line are easily dissuaded and lack persistence to push on through towards their goals.
Even if there is someone dishonest pulling the strings of the people in arms for their own gains, do not try to pick a fight with them while the picket is in full swing. They have already won that day, you have your hands full with the protest at hand, not with whoever organized it. You can fight them another day and with different means.