Proactive meeting professionals have always planned ahead for the potential for protests and other possible disruptions to their events and conferences. But today, many are stepping up their efforts, with demonstrations held and publicized almost daily since the recent U.S. presidential election. Seemingly, protests have become more of the norm, nationwide. Therefore, many meeting professionals are met with the challenges of planning a successful event while also dealing with the added challenge of demonstrators – peaceful or not.
Here are some tips that we adhere to at MPI on how to prepare for the possibility of protesters at your next event.
Assess the Event
First and foremost, assess the chances of an individual or a group protesting your event or conference; preparation starts with a risk assessment long before the event takes place. There are many potential sparks for protests--from controversial keynote speakers to even less obvious triggers, like what a brand posted on social media or a company sponsoring the event. Determine why they may protest and get ahead of them if possible.
Scour the Internet and Social Media
Use search engines and social media to find clues that a speaker or topic may spark protests--for example, search your event’s hashtag on Twitter. We recommend using tools such as HootSuite, a social media marketing dashboard; Mention, a tool for monitoring brands; or even Google Alerts, which can give you frequent data on who is talking about an event or its speakers. Look for articles about previous protests of a speaker or controversy about a topic that will be discussed. Protesters can generate a crowd in mere minutes using social media.
Hire (or Use) Event Security and Be Prepared for Emergencies
Work closely with the provided security team(s) at your event site to plan for the possibility of protests. If a security team is not provided, you might want to hire off-duty police officers to bolster security. Talk to all coordinators involved and work diligently with them to ensure the safety and security of all event attendees. For example, if your event is held at a hotel, discuss with the security team(s) the possibility of securing the property by allowing admission only to those with a hotel key card.
For large events, some planners keep in close contact with local police to ensure they have the most up-to-date information about any protests that may disrupt their events--or aspects of the event experience--such as the travel of attendees to and from the airport. Even if protesters don’t demonstrate at your event itself, their protest at a nearby site could influence the event--such as blocking access to a hotel or making it difficult for attendees to leave.
As the old saying goes, “Plan for the worst and prepare for the best.” Establish a clear emergency policy with the security team(s) and anticipate the full variety of scenarios that could happen. Most protests don’t become violent, but in case one does, you need to know how you will respond. Create a backup plan, and a backup plan to your backup plan.
Go with the Flow
Making protesting inconvenient for demonstrators can backfire, as demonstrators are there to be seen and make their voices heard publicly. Therefore, trying to suppress them can be counterproductive. Instead, set up space where protesters can demonstrate behind barriers without disrupting the event. Having an area that is cordoned off and is easily patrolled and contained is much better than leaving things to chance. If you allow for a peaceful protest, the situation can often be diffused with no damage to property or violence erupting.
Understand that while you can’t control what happens at a demonstration, you can do a lot to ensure attendees remain safe and secure. Plan ahead of time, which will allow you to go into every event feeling confident, prepared and, most of all, successful.
Paul Van Deventer is the president and chief executive officer of Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International, the largest meeting and event industry association worldwide. Founded in 1972, MPI provides innovative, relevant education, networking opportunities and business exchanges, and acts as a prominent voice for the promotion and growth of the industry.