Protests actions against the energy sector and pipeline construction projects are nothing new. However, over the past year and a half protests have become more frequent, better organized, and more confrontational. They are also more likely to include illegal, “direct action” tactics such as trespassing and locking down on construction equipment. This escalation highlights the need to train employees how to properly respond. They need to understand protester goals, how to avoid a reaction that will become a “viral video,” what steps to take to de-escalate a confrontation, how to make the job site safe, and what to do when those steps are not enough.
First, employees need to understand that they are not the target audience of the protest action. The vast majority of protest actions are peaceful and non-violent. Many protesters will live in the community and have legitimate questions and concerns. They want to be heard and to have their concerns addressed. Typically, the only risk of physical harm comes from protesters who put themselves in hazardous situations by entering active constructions sites without an understanding of the potentially fatal hazards and without personal protective equipment.
Second, while some activists may be screaming at them and creating a scene at your office or job site, the real audience is the people that will view an edited version of the protest on social media or the evening TV news. The protester’s goal is to provoke a reaction, either verbal or physical, that will be used on social media to draw additional support and attention for their cause. They will edit out their own provocative actions, and feature your employee’s one sarcastic comment or off-color gesture as representative of your company’s attitude towards the entire community. Now that professional grade video and audio recording can be accomplished by anyone with a smart phone, your employees should be trained to treat every interaction with the public as if it were occurring live on a television news show. To avoid falling for the protesters’ carefully staged trap, they should have the mindset that their every comment and reaction will be viewed by both their mother and their CEO. When a protest occurs, it is best, if possible, not to interact with the actors. The news media and social media thrive on visual images of conflict. “If there is no interaction, there is no story.” If interaction is unavoidable, your employees first concern should be for their own safety; if they believe their safety is at risk, they should immediately remove themselves from the area and call 911 as soon as it is safe to do so.
Third, if your employees need to engage verbally with the protesters, there are several steps they can take to manage the interaction and de-escalate the tension:
- One employee, typically a supervisor, should be pre-designated as the spokesperson who will interact with the protesters. A second employee should be with the spokesperson as a witness and to observe the rest of the group as the spokesperson focuses on the protest leaders. A third employee should be pre-designated to call 911 if a law enforcement response is needed.
- The key for the spokesperson is to be respectful and calm – in both word and body language. If the volume and pitch of protest leader’s voice goes up, do not match it. Keep a calm tone and a normal speaking volume.
- Do not argue the protester’s “fact” statements or minimize their concerns. Restate or paraphrase their points and add positive statements like “I want to understand” or “Tell me if I have this right”. Ask clarifying or open-ended questions. It is hard to maintain anger or an agitated emotional state when you are being treated respectfully and someone is carefully listening to your concerns.
- If the protester has no interest in a legitimate conversation, by applying these techniques, you will deny them the video of angry people talking past each other that has become a staple of cable news shows and internet videos.
Finally, if the protesters ignore signage, fences or other barriers and trespass onto the construction site, employees or contractors should not try to physically stop them. Only law enforcement should take physical action. Workers may defend themselves, but not initiate any physical contact. Remember, the protesters may be trying to provoke a physical response for their cameras. Train your employees to immediately shut down all machinery, remove any keys, and stop all work. After the equipment is shut down and secured, workers should regroup at a pre-determined rally point on site and the supervisor should call for a law enforcement response. If the protesters begin throwing rocks, bottles, or take other violent action, all employees should immediately leave the work site and re-group at a pre-designated rally point away from the worksite. 911 should be called as soon as it safe to do so.
The sudden appearance of noisy, sign waving protesters at a construction site or office can be an unsettling event. By training your employees in advance for these situations, you will reduce their stress and discomfort when faced with a protest, decrease the risk of injury and greatly increase the likelihood that they will respond in a manner that enhances your company’s reputation in the community.