You've seen them on the news, you've passed them on the street, you may even have participated in one or two yourself. But your whole perspective on demonstrations is likely to change when sign-waving, slogan-chanting picketers show up outside your business.
"No matter how politically correct you are or how you may perceive yourself or your business, there will be those who take a different view," says Rhonda Sander-son, president of Sanderson & Associates, a national public relations firm in Highland Park, Illinois. "But a demonstration doesn't have to mean devastation. The key is to immediately implement a strong, swift damage control program."
First determine exactly what the demonstration is about and gauge the mood of the picketers. "If the demonstrators seem harmless and there aren't very many of them, and the issue is one you would like to clear up, send someone out to talk with them," Sanderson says. "Choose someone with strong communication skills-it doesn't have to be you, but it does have to be someone who is empathetic and has some authority to speak on behalf of your company."
If, on the other hand, the situation appears to be potentially volatile, approach the demonstrators with caution. "If you suspect even the slightest potential for violence, call the police," Sanderson advises. "Don't put yourself, your employees or your customers at risk." Chances are your local law enforcement officials have dealt with similar situations and may even have a community services officer available who can offer guidance.
Once you know what the complaint is, decide on a strategy for resolving the situation-preferably as quickly and peacefully as possible. You must either stick to your guns or negotiate a compromise.
"Keep in mind that generally demonstrators want their opinions to be heard-so much so that they are willing to stand in the cold or the heat for hours," Sanderson says. "If you let them air their grievances to you immediately, they may feel they've had their say and be willing to end the demonstration."
Beyond dealing with the demonstrators, you'll need to communicate with your employees, your customers and possibly the media. "If the media shows up, do not lock yourself behind a closed door," Sanderson says. "Appoint a spokesperson to tell your side of the story, and instruct all employees to direct any inquiries to that individual. If possible, voice your desire to resolve the problem. Keep your remarks brief and concise. Stay calm, focus on the positives and don't criticize."
In all cases, tell the truth. "Explain the issue from your point of view," Sanderson says. "Talk about why that position is important to you. Convey your side of the story in a manner designed to generate sympathy and support."
Whatever you say, the most important phrase to avoid is "no comment." If you don't know the answer, offer to find out. If the answer would mean revealing confidential information, explain why you are not at liberty to respond. Couch all your comments in constructive terms.
A demonstration could be a one-time event or a regular occurrence. In either case, you may want to communicate your position to your customers through a letter or posted notices. Says Sanderson, "It's possible to turn a negative situation into a positive marketing opportunity."
Jacquelyn Lynn is a business writer in Winter Park, Florida.