Handling Hecklers

Today’s entry is based on one of the 20 case studies in my position paper, “Beyond the Bottom Line: 20 Ways to Reduce Reputational Risk.”

The risk

Protesters disrupt your news conference

The Background

You’ve got the right spokespeople on the podium, prepped them with your message, and spread the word about your news conference. What could go wrong?

Plenty. Just ask George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton, both of whom have had to duck airborne shoes hurled by foes who gained access to their events.

Or check with the speaker confronted by a heckler during a presentation. While these may not be everyday occurrences in your world, third-rail issues can cause feelings to boil over and draw confrontational opponents out of the woodwork.

Protest meeting at Beresford Place, and the arrest of Count Plunkett

The Reputational Costs

Case one: Your spokesperson makes both himself and your organization look foolish when he exhibits that “deer in the headlights” look when confronted with hecklers or those who try an act of physical protest like tossing confetti or unfurling a banner.

Case two: The other extreme, in which he insults the protesters, or you try strong arm tactics to deal with them. You are likely to win little public sympathy taking this course of action.

Unless you are an unquestioned “black hat” in the public’s eye, people are likely to feel for you when incivility invades your event. However, your reaction can tip the scales to the negative if you’re not careful.

Recommended Action

  1. When holding a news conference on an issue that is particularly edgy, prepare your spokespeople for possible interruptions. Instruct them on how to deal with them. While they may not be able to come out smelling fresh as a daisy, you can avoid looking flummoxed or high-handed (for a roundup of principles, see “Nine News Conference Niceties”).
  2. Limit attendance to real journalists. This is increasingly difficult in these times of bloggers, some of whom adhere to journalistic ethics; some of whom are only trying to advance their own point of view. This means that you must review your guest list more carefully than in the past.
  3. Game out how your company might respond to certain reputational risk issues, using “Simulations Generate Communications Success” as a guide.



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