Protests and the Politics of Protection: In Dealing with Protesters, Companies Must Uphold the Civil Rights of the Activists While Simultaneous Protecting Property and Personnel. (Special Feature)

Article excerpt

An oil-drilling company operating in Canada had to move a 400-ton container vessel from the city where it was manufactured to where it would be used in the oil fields. The company's first thought was to make the move at night, but the government would not allow it because of the hazards involved. That decision exposed the company to another type of hazard. Along the route, protesters from Greenpeace blocked the truck's progress. One group of protesters surrounded the vehicle while another group, composed of professional mountain climbers, scaled the vessel.

Armed with cell phones, the climbers began conducting interviews with reporters--some as far away as Australia. Some protesters pulled out sleeping bags and set up a sort of camp under the truck while others hung banners from the container. One protester operated a laptop computer powered by solar panels. The group took digital photos and uploaded them to the Internet, providing real-time coverage of the incident. The press, tipped off by the protesters, were on site with cameras ready.

The incident lasted for several hours. Company officials eventually had to call in the police. In the end, all of the protesters were arrested. But they had achieved their objective--disrupting company business and getting bountiful media attention. Thankfully, in this case, the groups had made their point without causing any significant damage to the company's property or personnel.

This company's experience is familiar to any organization that has faced direct-action protests. Such protests can range from peaceful demonstrations at a company's headquarters to looting to tree spiking--a dangerous sabotaging of logging operations that can result in injury or death to saw mill employees.

In all their guises, direct-action protests are launched by special interest groups such as environmental or animal rights activists. These groups feel that the best way to achieve their goals is to draw attention to the activity they oppose by protesting directly against companies that engage in that activity. Among the frequent targets are logging, oil extraction, medical research, and biotechnology operations. In recent years, protest groups have expanded their reach to include companies that fund such enterprises. For example, investment banking firms have been targeted for funding companies that experiment on animals.

In dealing with direct-action protests, companies must balance several issues. First, in most countries, protesters have a legal right to demonstrate peacefully. A company can take action only when protesters turn violent. Second, protesters are most interested in media attention. This means that whenever protesters congregate, the target company is under unusual scrutiny. Appearing too aggressive can hurt a company's public image and garner sympathy for the protesters.

Companies must protect themselves, however, from protests aimed at them and protests that might spill over from another site. To do this, security must devise a plan to protect property, respect the rights of protesters, and protect the company image. The best plan is for security to adapt crisis management techniques to address protests, train employees to deal with protesters, devise a media plan, and work with law enforcement. Other issues include cybersecurity and legal strategies.

Crisis planning. The first step in dealing with direct-action protests is to develop a crisis management plan designed for such situations. While these plans should include physical security precautions, they should be more heavily weighted toward other issues, such as public relations, due diligence, and employee training.

Physical security. Protecting against protesters can be a challenge because protesters often hit companies in remote areas where physical security is difficult, says David Ray, managing director for Kroll Worldwide. For example, logging operations, oil patches, and agricultural fields are often large and include difficult terrain. …