Get Our Email Newsletter

Managing Response to Protest Campaigns Against Retailers

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 effected 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 training of LP team members. With regard to LP training, it is important to note that traditional crisis training inadequately prepares LP for situations involving crowds. In fact, LP may unknowingly respond in a manner that exacerbates the situation.

- Digital Partner -

Historical Perspective

The activists today are considerably different than their predecessors. Activists in the 1960 – 1970 era promoted social change and were committed to long-term efforts to bring about change. Groups often established training sites and educated the public about their particular causes.

Today’s activists exercise their rights to free speech and assembly just like their predecessors. However, in comparison, today’s activists seek instant and dramatic change and are more confrontational. Rather than educating the public about their particular causes, groups educate members about methods of confrontation. Peaceful demonstrations in front of store locations, which are off to the side and not impeding operations, are becoming less common. Instead, protestors are much more likely to move protests inside store locations with the specific intent to disrupt business.

One memorable instance of activists’ confrontational tactics occurred in November 1999 when the World Trade Organization (WTO) held its annual meeting in Seattle, Washington. The WTO intended for emissaries from around the globe to gather and express opinions on trade, tariffs, and world economics. However, the WTO’s agenda was thwarted by thousands of activists that came to express their opinions as well. Activists escalated their tactics over the course of several days in an effort to disrupt the WTO, which resulted in increased tensions between activists and Seattle police. By the end of the WTO meeting, civil disturbance reached the point that Seattle Mayor Paul Schell declared a civil emergency, placed the National Guard on alert, and imposed an overnight curfew.

On the face of it, one might expect that the city’s convention center and hotels that hosted WTO delegates would have sustained the most damages, but this was not the case. Interestingly, the most frequent victims of property damage and theft were Seattle merchants who sustained more than $2.5 million in property damages. Numerous retailers also lost revenue because of forced closures in the downtown area.

The U.S. did not see another large-scale protest until January 2002, when approximately 250,000 activists arrived in New York City for the World Economic Forum (WEF). In comparison to Seattle, protests against the WEF were rather tame, but activists’ tactics and targets were noteworthy. For example, several groups of demonstrators brought large scale, but unorganized, protests to many downtown retailers’ front doors. Animal rights demonstrators specifically targeted a high-rise apartment building that they believed was the home of a particular corporate executive. The demonstrators vandalized the building before being dispersed by police. In sum, the activists’ tactics and targets made it appear that their grievances were against corporate America, rather than local, state, or federal government.

LP Solutions

In the last several years, public demonstrations have become more common in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Europe. Some demonstrations will indirectly affect businesses in the immediate area, and others will directly target the retail industry. Corporations may benefit from reconsidering their response plans for public demonstrations in response to these eventualities.

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. Loss prevention should also be aware that their presence, and the presence of uniformed security, can adversely influence crowd behavior. Each of these topics is described below.

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

Prior to September 2001, the anti-capitalist movement focused on the retail and fast food industries for alleged unfair labor practices, and the environmentalist movement focused on home improvement stores due to their sale of lumber (a product environmentalists associate with deforestation). Beginning in 2002, the labor-related and environmental campaigns were overshadowed by an abundance of antiwar demonstrations in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Europe, Australia, and elsewhere.However, the anti-capitalist and environmental activists are returning to their previous agendas following the de-escalation of military conflicts overseas. 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 astraight-forward task, since corporations have diverse holdings and groups advocate for an infinite number of social issues.

- Digital Partner -

Group’s Characteristics

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 over the Internet and in local newspapers 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.

Extremist Groups.

While identifying the histories and agendas of groups expected at a demonstration is an important step, it is not foolproof. While most groups announce their intentions in advance in order to obtain public support for their cause, some groups do not announce their involvement in advance, which could either indicate alack of organization or a specific desire to remain anonymous. Groups that wish to remain anonymous tend to be more radical or extreme in their behavior. The Eart hLiberation Front (ELF) is perhaps the most noteworthy example of an extremist group. The FBI considers ELF responsible for the destruction of over $37 million worth of property in the last five years. The ELF has claimed responsibility for arson attacks against several retailers resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage. The ELF most often involves itself with environmental issues and is responsible for hundreds of acts of arson and vandalism in the U.S. and Europe.

Prior to demonstrations against the WEF, the ELF released the following message:

“We endorse the Anti-Capitalist Convergence against the World Economic Forum. We also call on all

ELF cells and allies to take direct action against WEF member corporations, in New York City or elsewhere, during the Week of Action from January 31–February 4.”

The WEF demonstrations were part of an anti-capitalism agenda rather than an environmental agenda. As such, ELF was an unexpected influence at the WEF. The ELF’s behavior serves as a reminder that some groups may show up where you do not expect them.

Anger Displacement

The anti-war demonstrations over the past several months and perhaps even the WTO protests in Seattle did not involve issues specifically relevant to any single corporation. More often than not, marches and rallies were uneventful and businesses simply contended with traffic congestion and some extra noise. Less frequently, expressive and aggressive crowds vandalized buildings and impeded business operations. To appreciate how this type of aggressive behavior can occur, LP should understand anger displacement.

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 a recent 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.

Retailers Who Are Targeted

Presently, approximately forty major retail chains and twenty designer clothing manufacturers are specifically targeted by various activist groups. To complicate matters further, at least eight major fast-food chains that operate either inside or in close proximity to retail stores are currently targeted by activists. Activist groups are in force on 120 or more universities and subscribe, contribute, or manage over 110 Internet-based anti-corporate websites.
When a company is specifically targeted by an activist group, the complexity of the problem increases and the risks become more significant. Often, a targeted company views the problem initially as a public relations issue, but the activists’ behaviors soon require consultation with LP. For example, targeted companies often contend with the sustained presence of protesters, vandalism, bomb threats, attempts to hack into main-frame computer systems, and other forms of harassment at store locations and corporate offices. When activists target a particular company, they appear at shareholders’ meetings with alarming frequency. On occasion, activists monitor speaking appearances of CEOs and appear at those venues to harass company representatives.

The factors relevant to protests in general (type of event, nature of protest, and the influences of LP) will still be relevant when activists focus on a specific company. In this instance, information concerning the types of crowds and more intricate knowledge of the organizing group will be necessary.

Management must also anticipate the corporation’s vulnerabilities and how it might respond to activist’s sustained efforts to disrupt business operations. A fundamental understanding of group dynamics will also be helpful.

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 will be 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 can not open for business, to being particularly costly, like when protesters managed to shut down a distribution center for several months.

Harassment can potentially harm a selected individual, like when activists hit Microsoft’s CEO in the face with a pie, or could potentially harm multitudes, like prompting a store evacuation with a false alarm or bomb scare. Before international terrorism affected the continental U.S., a bomb scare or false fire alarm might have been regarded as a prank. Now, due to heightened public anxiety, these behaviors can cause customers and employees to panic and the risk for serious injury is more significant.

Computer Hacking. One particularly concerning form of harassment is computer hacking. Since most major retail corporations have direct computer links with entities inside and outside the company…which is essential to remaining competitive…this interconnectivity also leaves the corporation vulnerable to hackers. In 2001, computer hackers invaded a major retailer’s mainframe computer and sabotaged check approval systems during a peak sales season.
In addition to knowing the group’s tactics, it will be imperative to know its goals. The most accomplished political action groups consistently utilize tactics that further their agenda. Knowledge of the group’s agenda and goals will place the corporation’s experiences in context and help management anticipate the group’s future moves.

Company’s Vulnerabilities

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.Organizational Ability. Corporations can learn a great deal by observing a group’s ability to organize. A group that influences 1,000 activists to show up at a demonstration is a more formidable adversary than the group that only musters 100 activists to show up at its event.

The organizational abilities of International ANSWER, a political action group based in the U.S., is a good example of a group whose ability to organize is something to be revered. International ANSWER repeatedly organized anti-war demonstrations in the months leading up to military interventions in the Middle East. On a single day, the group sponsored protests in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago, London, Madrid, and Paris, with each venue seeing between 250,000 and 1,000,000 activists. On the surface, International ANSWER showed it could bring out big numbers. But more importantly, the group showed how effectively it could influence so many people. Corporations can infer something about an activist’s group’s influence by observing the group’s ability to organize. It’s this ability that gives the group its power.

Managing Response to Protest Campaigns Against Retailers

Extreme Opinions. 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 can not quickly meet, if at all. Furthermore, the agendas of many activist groups are constantly changing, which makes it exceedingly difficult for corporations to respond. Corporate representatives, particularly those in public relations, often walk away fromthese 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.

Frustration. 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 aggressivebehavior by group members. Individuals acting as part of a group often feel their personal accountability is diminished, which weakens the individual’s restraintsagainst socially inappropriate behaviors.

A corporation specifically targeted by activist groups will have to contend with expressive and aggressive groups, comprised of activists with rather extreme opinions, engaging in various tactics to get the corporation’s attention,whose frustration levels may be  increasing over time in contexts where personal accountability is declining. Often, the expertise with which the corporation responds to these circumstances influences whether things become volatile or simply fade away.

Crisis Management Planning

While in the past, protection of company interests could be adequately provided at the local level, it is now necessary for LP at the corporate level to provide centralized response plans for protests.

Demonstrations have become more common, which requires retailers to evaluate existing emergency procedures to ensure these plans are adequate. Corporate LP should also consider providing additional training for its field agents and managers in order to standardize LP’s response to these events.

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 inquiries from local and national media. 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.

Information Gathering

The CMTmembers 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 CMT 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.

Managing Response to Protest Campaigns Against RetailersContingency Planning. 

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.

One particular option available to a targeted corporation is police assistance. This may be a tough decision since many corporations avoid utilizing law enforcement at store locations, particularly inside the store, since police officers are not specifically trained about corporate liability. However, if LP develops the means to obtain advanced warning of a protest, management should consider making arrangements to have law enforcement present for the event.

An immense amount of work is needed to predicate taking this precaution. One option is for LP to convince police commanders that allocation of police resources to the demonstration is necessary. The other option is simply to hire off-duty police officers to protect the store.

This decision will have a variety of twists by market. For instance, some police departments do not allow off-duty work in uniform, some insist off-duty officers wear their uniforms, and some insist off-duty officers work in pairs. It will certainly be necessary to provide off-duty officers with detailed instructions about the company’s needs and expectations. The risks associated with hiring off-duty police are outweighed by the benefits. Since personal accountability goes down in group contexts, the presence of uniformed police reminds activists of the ramifications of unlawful behavior. Activists are also more likely to follow directions of uniformed police rather than other less recognized authority figures. Police presence will protect the activists’ rights to free speech and assembly and ensure the corporation’s business operations are not impeded.

Group Behavior Training

Finally, it will be essential for the CMT to have a good understanding of group behavior. 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 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. A bibliography of reference materials for this article is available by contacting the authors.


Loss Prevention Magazine updates delivered to your inbox

Get the free daily newsletter read by thousands of loss prevention professionals, security, and retail management from the store level to the c-suite.

What's New

Digital Partners

Become a Digital Partner

Violence in the Workplace

Download this 34-page special report from Loss Prevention Magazine about types and frequency of violent incidents, impacts on employees and customers, effectiveness of tools and training, and much more.


View All | Sponsor a Webinar


View All | Submit a Whitepaper

LP Solutions

View All | Submit Your Content

Loss Prevention Media Logo

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

The trusted newsletter for loss prevention professionals, security and retail management. Get the latest news, best practices, technology updates, management tips, career opportunities and more.

No, thank you.

View our privacy policy.