How Do You Reason or Argue with a Mob?

It’s interesting to watch the recent disruption tactics at local town hall meetings to discuss the current healthcare legislation being debated by the U.S. Congress. You could argue that a thriving democratic government requires vigorous debate. But, debate requires two points of view – or more – discussing an issue.

The tactics deployed recently have nothing to do with debating and discussing healthcare. They’ve been purposely orchestrated to a) drown out the discussion that is trying to happen, and b) from a PR perspective provide a great video clip for the local TV news of people angry about potential healthcare changes and awkward shots of U.S. politicians trying to reason with “angry” constituents.

I immediately started thinking, “What PR counsel would I give in dealing with these mobs and disruption tactics?”


From a marketing perspective, what would you do if your company introduced a product that stirred anger/antipathy from consumers? What would you do if you tried to hold public meetings to discuss a topic of concern to your customers, and your competitor orchestrated people to scream at your CEO and shout down whatever he/she tried to say, regardless of what he was saying.

1. Don’t follow Nardelli’s meeting style. Unfortunately for Bob Nardelli, a once-successful General Electric executive, he will forever be remembered for his biggest business blunder ever – running a dictatorial Home Depot shareholders meeting amidst a bitter year of criticism over the size of his pay packages during a time when he was firing as many experienced, hourly Home Depot workers as he possibly could while keeping the doors of the stores open for business.

Nardelli’s shareholder meeting was memorable to say the least. The board of directors didn’t show up. Nardelli sat alone on stage. Whenever an unhappy shareholder began talking, a very large digital clock began counting down. When the allotted time finished, Nardelli insisted the person stop talking or be immediately removed from the building.

If you won’t all the details, Joe Nocera wrote a memorable New York Times story detailing Nardelli’s fiasco.

2. Don’t give them a platform. If your opponents have shown that they’re not interested in a genuine debate, and they simply want to draw you into awkward situations where you try to reason with several people frothing at the mouth – awkward situations that will be filmed and uploaded to YouTube within minutes – don’t give them the opportunity. In that scenario, they’ve succeeded on one front. They’ve denied you the ability to hold a public meeting.

To use a warfare quote, to succeed in warfare you should fight on the battlefield of your choosing – not the one of your enemy’s choosing. Deny them the confrontation.

3. Do use the platforms that allow you to broadcast – and not receive. If the opposition’s sole aim is to disrupt your message and discussion, use media that goes over, around, and under them. Using this healthcare debate example, the Obama administration should go into campaign mode. If the other side is solely focused on disruption, ignore them and go around them. (I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know all the legal ramifications of political advertising and what’s allowed for these types of policy debates).

Instead of the infamous Harry and Louise commercials that tanked the Clintons’ healthcare overhaul, healthcare proponents should be flooding the TV, radio, and the Internet w/ ads that articulate their positions. Millions of dollars spent to explain your position will go a lot farther and can’t be disrupted by a vocal minority screaming.

4. Make your points, but appeal to emotions. One DNC ad has tried to engage the people disrupting town meetings – and make an issue of their tactics. Not a good move. Acknowledging the yellers in the least, lends them credibility. Ignore them.

Instead, run multiple ads featuring real people from all walks of life who are struggling with healthcare issues – small business people who are going to be forced to fire workers or stop providing health insurance due to the skyrocketing costs, people who have been denied healthcare because of preexisting conditions, and people who are hard workers, love their families, and can’t afford out-of-pocket health insurance for their families. Humanize the issue. Don’t yell, don’t scream, just show the impact of spiraling healthcare costs on a wide spectrum of Americans.

Lots of people talk about using social media to “join the conversation.” What if that conversation is one-sided and the other side only wants to scream, yell, and disrupt? How do you join that conversation?

What would you do if your company was faced with an angry, mob that wasn’t interested in a genuine debate?