In the past, retailers considered public demonstrations to be a police matter and relinquished the development of response plans to the local level. Retailers must now recognize that public demonstrations and civil disturbances pose a substantial risk to businesses operating in the affected area, particularly in downtown shopping districts.
At best, public demonstrations disrupt business operations with street closures. At worst, public demonstrations deteriorate into civil unrest during which law enforcement prioritizes protection of the entire city over the protection of individual businesses. If civil unrest occurs, businesses must decide to remain open or lock their doors, to board up windows or leave them accessible, to encourage employees to remain at work or send them home. The sensitivity of these decisions cannot be understated and the ramifications of incorrect decisions are often severe.
Loss prevention can strongly influence these decisions with increased knowledge of crowd behavior, an awareness of how the company is perceived by certain elements of the public, and through advanced crisis response training of LP team members. With regard to LP training, it is important to note that traditional crisis response training inadequately prepares LP for situations involving crowds. In fact, LP may unknowingly respond in a manner that exacerbates the situation.
Retailers as Non-Specific Targets
When a public demonstration is planned to occur in proximity to a company location, loss prevention organizations should consider the type of event, nature of the protest, and characteristics of the organizing group. LP should know that while the majority of activists behave peacefully, there may be small elements that engage in less peaceful behavior. As such, LP will need to understand anger displacement and may require crisis response training. Loss prevention should also be aware that their presence, and the presence of uniformed store security, can adversely influence crowd behavior.
Type of Event
Demonstrations are frequently organized as stationary rallies, marches, or a combination of both. Many jurisdictions require organizers to obtain permits for public demonstrations. While the permit process differs substantially from city to city, the process provides local governments with information concerning the nature, location, and anticipated magnitude of the demonstration and allows time to arrange traffic control, sanitation, and other needed services. With a solid working relationship with local police, LP can obtain information concerning rally location and march route and determine the proximity of the event in relation to store locations. Loss prevention should work with law enforcement in developing plans that will adequately protect store locations.
Nature of Protest
A visit to the organizing group’s website will commonly provide information on the particular social issue and the nature of the demonstration. Some groups will be extremely overt with their rhetoric, calling for protests on specific days, in specific cities, against specific retailers. Other groups’ websites may be less informative in this regard, painting their movement with a very broad brush across a variety of industries, thus making it difficult for a retailer to determine a specific threat. With the available information in-hand, the corporation must evaluate if a group’s social issue has any relationship to the corporation. This is not always a straightforward task, since corporations have diverse holdings and groups advocate for an infinite number of social issues.
Basic knowledge of the group, the characteristics of its members, and the group’s agenda might provide indications of what is to come. Groups composed of young adults tend to push the limits more than other groups. In addition, some political issues engender more impassioned responses than others. In practice, it will be beneficial to know if a group is composed of 500 senior citizens demonstrating about access to health care versus 500 college students demonstrating about international trade practices. If the identity of the group is known and time permits, LP can research the group online to determine how the group has conducted itself during previous demonstrations. A group’s previous behavior is often a good indication of its future behavior.
Activist groups are comprised of individuals assembled for common purpose and share common sentiments and frustrations. Activists might be frustrated at the government, might be frustrated with police, and might even be frustrated with each other since being in a large crowd can be stressful itself. Activists might want to vent their frustrations toward the government or police, but this type of conduct has unpleasant ramifications. So, frustration accumulates and can be eventually triggered by an unwitting person and vented toward an unsuspecting entity.
For instance, anger displacement explains the vandalism of a restaurant in proximity to an early 2000s anti-war demonstration in the U.K. Even the most conservative estimates indicate one million protesters marched through London. As one might expect, activists stopped into businesses along the way to purchase food and use restrooms. The manager of a fast-food restaurant locked the front doors because he reportedly did not want activists to use the restrooms. Activists that tried to enter found the doors locked and the manager motioning them to move along. A few activists became upset and began pulling on the glass doors, which eventually shattered. Subsequently, all the windows at the restaurant were smashed as the crowd moved past. The restaurant manager made his business the focus of the crowd’s attention and triggered some in the crowd to displace their anger and frustration.
Similar unwise decisions have been made by retailers during large-scale demonstrations. For example, in the interests of deterrence, it might sound sensible to post LP agents or uniformed security in front of the premises as the protest marches past. Unfortunately, this is likely to create more risk than benefit because the crowd could interpret it as an adversarial gesture and direct unwanted attention toward the store. Demonstrators can either march past your location or stop. Corporations and its agents should avoid provocative behaviors that give demonstrators reason to stop.
Loss Prevention’s Influence
It is critical for LP to understand that their obvious presence in front of, or in the middle of, a protest may agitate a crowd rather than control it. Attempts by LP, store management, or uniformed security officers to confront, control, or eject protestors from company property are often unsuccessful. To call attention to the obvious, protesters often disregard authority or will not respond to someone that is not a recognized authority. Plainly speaking, confrontations with activists are best handled by uniformed police. Unlike LP, store management, or uniformed security, uniformed police officers are recognized authority figures and activists are more likely to respond to their instructions.
Type of Crowd
Shoppers in a store constitute a casual crowd. These people are simply in the same place at the same time, but are not behaving collectively. A group involved in some unified behavior, such as attending a sporting event, constitutes a cohesive crowd. This type of crowd behaves collectively at a low level, but requires substantial provocation for violence.
Activists gathered for a protest rally constitute an expressive crowd. These people are assembled for common purpose and share common sentiments and frustrations. Expressive crowds are more cohesive, often have identifiable leaders, and wish to be perceived as a formidable influence.
Demonstrators and striking employees can exemplify an aggressive crowd. People in these contexts assemble for specific purpose, operate more cohesively, and are often more noisy, impulsive, and emotional. There is an identifiable leader coordinating the aggressive crowd’s activities.
It is important to consider the type of crowd prior to any intervention. A store manager would likely gain immediate compliance if he or she gave a direction to a casual crowd, but would not have similar success with directions given to an expressive crowd. For LP specifically, the type of crowd will be extraordinarily relevant to decisions concerning arrests. For example, LP agents routinely arrest shoplifters from among casual crowds with little difficulty. However, arresting a protester (perhaps for trespassing) from an expressive crowd will be more problematic, because the expressive crowd is more likely to interfere and overwhelm LP.
Group’s Characteristics and Tactics
A corporation that is specifically targeted by activists will contend with more than stationary rallies or marches. Often store locations are targeted because they are the most vulnerable and the most recognizable aspect of a retail corporation.
Pickets. Activists can simply walk around in front of the store with signs, which is known as informative picketing, or intentionally impede access to the store, which is known as obstructive picketing.
Sit-ins. Activists have staged sit-ins at corporate headquarters and inside retail store locations. It is difficult to suggest a way to handle such events. However, companies should be aware that protesters will play to the media cameras when LP or police try to move them. And if the media are not there, rest assured the protesters will have cameras themselves and will provide the film to the media. Boycotts are often threatened, but rarely take hold. It’s more likely an activist group will encourage a temporary boycott during a peak sales season like Christmas.
Harassment. By far, activists’ most aggravating tactic is sustained harassment. All types of harassment are designed to assault the corporation’s image, make management look inept, disrupt operations, and increases stress within the company. Examples of harassment are endless and future instances are only restricted by activists’ imaginations. Examples of harassment range from relatively benign, like damaging the store’s locks so it cannot open for business, to being particularly costly, like when protesters managed to shut down a distribution center for several months. One particularly concerning form of harassment is computer hacking.
Retailers are more vulnerable to protest than any other industry, since by its nature retailers have buildings open to the public. In addition, many retailers have an international presence. A corporation may have diverse holdings and interests, and its image is associated with its logo, advertising slogans, products, stores and buildings, website, New York Stock Exchange icon, executives, and paid spokespersons. Generally speaking, groups have little difficulty finding some aspect of the company to target. Loss prevention has the more difficult task of identifying the company’s vulnerabilities and prioritizing which vulnerabilities require protection. Appropriate crisis response training will help LP identify what areas are at greatest risk when the time comes.
During meetings with activist groups, one quickly observes that activists generally convey opinions that are more extreme than those held by the general population. Activists often make demands that corporations cannot quickly meet, if at all. Furthermore, the agendas of many activist groups are constantly changing, which makes it difficult for corporations to respond. Corporate representatives, particularly those in public relations, often walk away from these meetings with the misguided belief that the activists are so extreme and have such unreasonable expectations that no one will listen to them. Instead, corporations should listen intently, since this information provides clues about what the group is likely to do to substantiate its opinions and achieve its demands. Furthermore, extreme opinions increase the likelihood of extreme behaviors.
Groups of activists with more extreme opinions (relative to the rest of the population), with expectations that a corporation will rapidly change, showing up in one place to express a common sentiment sets the stage for frustration and diffusion of responsibility. Frustration can build due to a multitude of reasons, but one noteworthy cause is that most corporations are not able to quickly change their operations, even when they want to. Activists may soon conclude that their efforts are unsuccessful and their goals will not be achieved, which increases their frustration. This is important since one of the most consistent psychological findings is that aggression is more likely when the path to a specific goal is obstructed. Diffusion of responsibility is also expected to increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior by group members. Individuals acting as part of a group often feel their personal accountability is diminished, which weakens the individual’s restraints against socially inappropriate behaviors.
Crisis Management Team
When a retailer is the specific target of an anti-corporate campaign, the crisis management team (CMT) is often the most appropriate vehicle to oversee the corporation’s responses. Given LP’s skills to systematically gather and analyze information and the nature of this particular problem, LP can make essential contributions toward the CMT’s efforts.
The CMT should also include representatives from the public relations department in order to monitor information exchanges with activist groups and manage the company’s responses to media inquiries. Since activist groups often launch campaigns to embarrass and harass the corporation, specific attention should be devoted toward associates’ responses to anti-corporate propaganda. A human resources representative is the logical choice for this perspective.
The crisis management team members will require up-to-date information on activists’ activities and will also benefit from expanding their global awareness to include the vast number of social and political issues that spur public demonstrations. Most importantly, the CMT should establish a method to obtain advanced notice of activist events. This requires collection of data concerning the frequency, location, and severity of protest events against the company. This is most adequately accomplished by LP, given the investigative nature of the task.
If the crisis leadership has advance notice of a protest, it can provide local store management with as much information as possible regarding the demonstration. This will allow store managers to prepare for the event, make their associates aware of what is expected and encourage their associates to avoid confrontations with protestors.
Contingency Planning and Crisis Response Training
The CMT should also identify the company’s vulnerabilities and may find it beneficial to imagine a series of worst-case scenarios and determine how the company could best respond to these circumstances. With that in mind, some store operations may need modification. For example, stores may wish to provide alternate entrance and exit routes to allow customers to avoid demonstrations in front of the building.
The CMT should learn to have a good understanding of group behavior during crisis response training. Since CMT members will want to ensure the situation does not deteriorate, it is also important that members realize the risk factors associated with group violence are different and more complex than risk factors which members learned in the context of workplace violence. The CMT will benefit from crisis response training that explains these differences.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is based on presentations made to the National Retail Federation and the National Conference on Threats and Workplace Violence. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of corporate entities affiliated with Robert Rice or David Walsh.
This article was excerpted from “Managing Response to Protest Campaigns against Retailers,” which was published in LP Magazine in 2003.