How to handle protests

A very small band of protestors invaded Sea World in Brisbane this week, causing the operator to cancel two of its dolphin shows.  The protestors, some in the dolphin pools, were removed by police.

What struck us was the uncompromising tenor of the company’s communications response. It used two techniques to stand up for itself;

  1. It marginalised the protestors’ ideas. Sea World did not entertain that the protestors could be right. It placed the protestors viewpoint into a niche and asserted its own right to operate by saying “some people do not support the idea of animals in human care”. It marginalised the views by describing them as “activists” using “dangerous tactics”.
  2. It utilised the support of its customers. To underline that there is another view on the subject, held by the many more people who want to see the shows, Sea World described the reaction of the crowd that “cheered when the group was escorted out of the presentations.” Activists try to dominate the retelling of what happened at protests to make their views appear less out of line with the public. The company’s description of the event tried to connect the sentiment of the audience with the sentiment of the wider public.

Sea World’s assured handling comes from experience. It is in no doubt that its core business is under threat from protestors. It cannot let the protestors disturb the preparedness of an audience to attend.

Other businesses find it easier to respond to protests by changing their operation when it is possible without affecting the core business. For example, when it came under similar pressure, travel company Thomas Cook decided it was easier to stop selling tickets to animal shows.

The task then, is to ascertain the risk the protest movements pose to your business. Can you meet the demands of protestors with no impact on your customers?

If you decide there is too much at risk to change your operation, Sea World has demonstrated ways to stand up for yourself.