The growing frequency of political protests and counter-demonstrations creates security concerns for event venues, including convention centers, hotels, colleges and university campuses. With the next general election cycle on the horizon, increased public protests are a certainty.
Now is the time for facilities management and meeting planners to conduct thorough reviews of their crisis management and business continuity plans to anticipate the potential perils of controversial events. Most importantly, it is the time to establish protocols to mitigate the disruption and restore business as usual.
Before advancing further on the topic, it’s important to have a perspective of what constitutes a “controversial group.” The answer is complicated. Ask those who manage large meetings, and they will respond with authority that they do not discriminate against groups based on ethnicity or religious and political beliefs. After all, free speech is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Consider this scenario: A large city conference center books a group that doesn’t reveal its true purpose. What starts out as a very promising and lucrative booking, with thousands of attendees, suddenly turns into a reputational nightmare for the host site when word gets out via social media that the group, in fact, is a white supremacist organization.
Droves of protestors turn up to publicly shame the venue’s decision to host this group. Corporate clients, church groups, fraternal organizations and even a wedding party threaten to cancel their upcoming events. Finally, a group of activists threaten to picket the conference center during the event.
With a signed contract in hand, management is front and center of a publicly charged scenario with potentially very unpleasant consequences. The inevitable outcome could ultimately impact the safety of its own employees as well as event attendees and the public.
Given the Constitution protects any group to gather under the right to free speech, the conference center has no legal basis for canceling the event. At the same time, it is obliged to provide a safe and secure environment for all.
Safeguarding the well-being of the public attending events begins at the top, with the full engagement of the convention center management teams and security personnel. They are responsible for anticipating potential conflict and taking proactive steps to plan for the assembly of controversial groups.
It’s equally important to manage any public backlash in real time and across a wide spectrum of channels. These include the venue’s social media platforms and website as well as the news media to minimize the spread of misleading information, which can go viral in a matter of seconds.
It is the responsibility of all conference and convention venue owners and their managers to adopt an integrated crisis management plan. The plan should be widely disseminated, frequently updated and practiced with periodic drills involving those site staff members who are designated to handle onsite emergencies as well as collaborate with local authorities.
An effective plan should include the following elements:
- Clearly defined protocols for what constitutes a controversial gathering
- An up-to-date chain of command with emergency phone numbers
- Engaging staff members with local authorities who are trained to manage public protests
- Training at all levels, including at the enterprise level and at each venue
- Scheduled practice drills
David Trumble is principal of Integrated Crisis Management Solutions, an organization composed of security operatives and communications professionals offering risk assessments, streamlined emergency protocols, management training, customer/media relations and recovery programs.