Protest and Survive: what would you do if protestors turned up at your business?
We’ve seen Just Stop Oil protests at Wimbledon, the Test Match cricket, and even George Osborne’s wedding.
Regular Anti-Vax and Pro-Palestinian protestors are targeting businesses and public buildings in city centres, including Manchester.
TheBusinessDesk.com, working in conjunction with law firm CMS gathered together a group of people involved in different ways with protests and managing the risks that they represent, but also in facilitating them and managing people’s democratic right to free expression, which everyone was keen to emphasise that they didn’t want to impinge.
Alex King-Byatt is the operations director of CityCo Manchester, the city centre management company, and her job involves ensuring the smooth running of public events in the city centre, minimising the disruption to the everyday business of the city.
“We make sure that our businesses as far as we can, are well briefed, are given knowledge in advance, and they have an understanding of the risks that they might encounter.”
She gave examples where liaison in advance with the environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion resulted in a lively protest on a busy Saturday, almost carnival like, but managed to minimise harmful disruption.
Stephanie Cheung, a senior associate at CMS, said: “I think if you are a business, if you haven’t had protesters, then it’s time to start thinking about how you might react if you did so your people on the ground know that you have a plan.”
Her colleague Chris Gorman, also an associate at CMS, added: “We can come into it later in the day when there have been protests that have disrupted businesses, but it’s how you manage that situation that counts. And from a business perspective, what steps do you need to take in those situations.”
Having discussed a number of real live situations, with some sensitive specifics, the consensus was that dialogue matters, and that an injunction was a last resort.
Cheryl Chung has worked for Boohoo and McDonalds in very senior corporate affairs roles. “I’ve done fast food, fast fashion, alcohol, gambling, the car industry. I left my last job in December. And my son was like, right, so basically, Mum, you’ve got oil and gas, tobacco and the sex industry to go at. Yes, I’ve had my fair share of protests.”
But she said, she’s never injuncted anyone on anything, preferring to manage a situation, rather than to litigate.
“We might have had to get police involved to just move people on. But our view is if you want to protest, if you want to speak to our people, knock yourself out, because quite often, you’re giving them a story if you start getting adversarial, and that’s incredibly unhelpful.”
She said that if, like her, you work in a controversial commercial industry, there are people that hate you. Therefore becoming a decent storyteller is vital, being open, transparent and telling the truth and being fact based, and addressing audiences in an appropriate way.
Practically speaking, that has often involved finding time for dialogue and even creating a safe space to do so. She gave the example of setting aside a room at an AGM where protestors turned up, for their use, the protestors were then permitted to meet with face to face with the board so it could listen to their concerns.
“They had their voice out there on the public forum. Everybody knew that. But shouting over each other in a public forum is not going to get anyone anywhere. And we literally took them to one side and had a conversation.”
Caspar Nixon, communications director of Uber also added poignant observations at this point.Stephanie Cheung had similar experiences, where clients have invited protesters to come into their premises, showing them around and actually explaining what is happening can help, “because there is sometimes just a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on.”
The other risk to manage is the protection of a business’s staff from being confronted with aggression.
Chris Peacock, who as a director of Lancashire County Cricket Club, has been party to preparations for the Ashes test match at Old Trafford and a seasoned public affairs specialist at Lexington, particularly around planning consultations, revealed what his most powerful tactic is. “The cup of tea is actually the most powerful tool, I completely, fundamentally believe that. I have used it many times.”
However, one of the additional current risks in a post-truth world, isn’t dealing with people who most of the participants would be broadly in favour of – animal protection, climate, modern slavery, but the conspiracy crowd who target the BBC, local government and the liberal establishment.
Alex King-Byatt recounted how a group of people turned up and wrecked the trading conditions at a flower festival in the city centre, they were protesting about a mix of things – “5G, masks, Bill Gates is controlling this, the BBC, the usual.”
She added: “Some really small businesses put a lot of money into that weekend and their rights were completely ignored.”
In the end one of the stallholders deployed a pair of scissors to sever a microphone cable, which was more effective than a police constable who appeared powerless in his assessment of the threat, harm and risk they presented.
There’s also a sense that the optics of protest are quite attractive in one sense, and that puts trading standards and police officers on a different footing.
Hannah Cox from the Better Business Network is an activist herself and feels strongly about the climate emergency and exploitative business practices.
She said: “We haven’t kind of got into the nitty gritty of why you would work for a company like Boohoo genuinely, like, why? Why are we not holding companies like that to account?
“Protests are happening because no action is then being taken after a peaceful protest, and they’re having to be really disruptive because no action is being taken. Our responsibility as human beings and people within these different causes, we need to start doing something about the climate emergency.”
Cheryl Chung pushed back and said she believes she was an agent for change, deploying her unique set of skills to change from within, especially when Boohoo was exposed for exploitative employment practices at sweatshops supplying them in Leicester.
“It’s one of the things that I was responsible for, on the back of the horrendous issue in Leicester, which we completely held our hands up for. We developed the agenda for change, we employed Brian Leveson QC to run an inquiry (the most fascinating man on earth). We set up a charitable trust as part of the agenda for change and donated £350,000 pounds for local businesses. So you can make change.”
Alex King-Byatt has seen street hawkers and grifters adopting the persona of a charity or a protest to drum up business. “On Market Street now it’s about definitions of protests, which are fascinating as well, where that’s shifting to single people with microphones, with a banner or a couple of leaflets. Are you protesting? Are you advocating? Or recruiting? When in fact they’re selling things and pretending to be charities and other stuff like that. But if you challenge them, they say ‘oh, no, we’re starting a movement’.”
She also said she finds that the lines are blurred about what actually a protest is these days and that’s “really tricky”.
She also shared some fascinating insights about intelligence gathering and information sharing, predicting where the next wave would come from, and monitoring social media and filtering out which ones are serious risks and which ones are keyboard warriors.
Chris Peacock also reflected on how the culture of protest has changed the business landscape.
“From a business perspective, I do think things are changing. I think businesses need to be more responsible, explaining who they are, what they do and why they do it. Many still do hide away. But regulatory changes that are dynamic and require businesses to demonstrate their impact, and I think that is changing the dial and people are now saying no, this is a fundamental part of who we are as a business.
“I was on the phone yesterday to a business who are looking at going for tenders with local authorities,” Chris noted that social responsibility was high on the agenda and this was being reflected in the weighting now being applied to tenders.
“None of this would have happened without decades of protests and people shouting about it.”