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?”

angry-mob

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?

  • Paul

    We first heard from the birthers, with their fake “birth certificate” in hand and with their fake outrage. These are the same under tones that you saw from Republicans during the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, “you are not like us” or “you are too different”, “you are not main stream”. And then they act surprised when people do not vote with them, they are lost, no core beliefs, too bad.

    In my opinion the Republican Party has been taken over the most extreme religious right (people who love to push their beliefs on others while at the same time trying to take away their rights) and that’s who they need to focus on if they real want to win. Good Luck, because as they said in WACO, “We Ain’t Coming Out”.

    It’s funny we hear Republicans say that they do not want “faceless bureaucrats” making medical decisions but they have no problem with “private sector” “faceless bureaucrats” daily declining medical coverage and financially ruining good hard working people. And who says that the “private sector” is always right, do we forget failures like Long-Term Capital, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Enron, Tyco, AIG and Lehman Brothers. Of course the federal government will destroy heathcare by getting involved, Oh but wait our military men and women and the Senate and Congress get the best heathcare in the world, and oh, that’s right, its run by our federal government. I can understand why some may think that the federal government will fail, if you look at the past eight years as a current history, with failures like Katrina and the Walter Reed Scandal, but the facts is they can and if we support them they will succeed.

  • SAMRPath

    Good post, Jeff. A really hard question. I think that the best strategy is always to embrace the opposition and difuse the impact. If the other side is trying to distract the conversation, stop that one, and start the right one. It could be that local forums could work really well if the Obama camp got more supporters in the room and kept the conversation on point. The other side won't stop stamping and yelling just b/c we stop. We have to keep the balance of noise in check.

    Stephanie
    @StephanieSAM

  • @StephanieSAM
    Even after writing this post, I haven't come up with a good answer. And it's
    something I've been thinking about a lot. I currently live in a small town
    in New England, and it's a town that's governed by an annual Town Meeting. I
    think Town Meeting is a great example of the purest form of democracy. The
    entire town (or the people who show up) vote on the budget, etc.

    However, the Town Meeting is governed by civility. Sure there are a lot of
    disagreements and strong opinions, and people voice their viewpoint.

    Yet, in these town meetings that are getting news coverage, there is a lack
    of civility and a group of people determined to drown out any discussion
    whatsoever. What do you do in that situation? If you have them dragged out
    of the meeting, then you end up with horrible video footage on the news.
    And, if you let them yell and scream and you try to talk over that
    disruption, you again have disingenuous news footage of a faux rebellion.

    I rarely, rarely criticize the media, but I think in this situation the
    media should take a more proactive stance in reporting on people yelling
    about “death panels” and other wild distortions. In my opinion, every news
    report that quotes someone talking about a “death panel”, the following 2-3
    sentences should point out, to be factual, that there is no basis in fact
    for what the person just said.

    Unfortunately, the media doesn't do that – probably in fear that they'll be
    too politicized in their coverage.

    Jeff

  • SAMRPath

    Good post, Jeff. A really hard question. I think that the best strategy is always to embrace the opposition and difuse the impact. If the other side is trying to distract the conversation, stop that one, and start the right one. It could be that local forums could work really well if the Obama camp got more supporters in the room and kept the conversation on point. The other side won't stop stamping and yelling just b/c we stop. We have to keep the balance of noise in check.

    Stephanie
    @StephanieSAM

  • @StephanieSAM
    Even after writing this post, I haven't come up with a good answer. And it's
    something I've been thinking about a lot. I currently live in a small town
    in New England, and it's a town that's governed by an annual Town Meeting. I
    think Town Meeting is a great example of the purest form of democracy. The
    entire town (or the people who show up) vote on the budget, etc.

    However, the Town Meeting is governed by civility. Sure there are a lot of
    disagreements and strong opinions, and people voice their viewpoint.

    Yet, in these town meetings that are getting news coverage, there is a lack
    of civility and a group of people determined to drown out any discussion
    whatsoever. What do you do in that situation? If you have them dragged out
    of the meeting, then you end up with horrible video footage on the news.
    And, if you let them yell and scream and you try to talk over that
    disruption, you again have disingenuous news footage of a faux rebellion.

    I rarely, rarely criticize the media, but I think in this situation the
    media should take a more proactive stance in reporting on people yelling
    about “death panels” and other wild distortions. In my opinion, every news
    report that quotes someone talking about a “death panel”, the following 2-3
    sentences should point out, to be factual, that there is no basis in fact
    for what the person just said.

    Unfortunately, the media doesn't do that – probably in fear that they'll be
    too politicized in their coverage.

    Jeff