Coping With the Megaphone Screamers
A handful of loud agitators can derail your organization. Senior VP Kirk Dorn offers sage advice for staying on track while addressing your most irrational critics.
Activism is a great American tradition. When groups have legitimate arguments on issues like education, housing, the environment, healthcare and gun laws, making their case through advocacy is a virtuous endeavor. It is how our democracy is supposed to function.
But when activists take extreme or irrational positions, organizations and government agencies are often caught in a predicament of how to respond to neutralize those attacks—or even whether to respond at all.
What I am addressing here is not legitimate debate. I am referring to a small number of people—sometimes just one or two—who come to public meetings with the goal of agitating for their case. They may use megaphones in the streets, post wild allegations on social media, or file high-minded-sounding but frivolous lawsuits. They usually propose simple, easily messaged solutions to problems—when the problems are much more complex.
There is no set formula for dealing with this. In some cases, the temptation is to ignore the noise. The thinking is these are a few fringe people. Let them scream and yell.
Indeed, there are cases where ignoring them is the appropriate position, at least at the outset. Even when agitators get under your skin and you worry they are damaging your organization’s reputation, the mistake you must avoid is a kneejerk overreaction. That is where most organizations get themselves into public relations trouble.
The agitator’s goal is to embarrass the organization or government entity, placing decision-makers in a position where they want to either discredit these loud voices or placate them so they will go away. The problem is, they seldom go away. Appeasement is rarely the correct policy.
The solution in almost every case is to run a fact-based campaign. Don’t respond to the activists, but instead consistently tell your story. Before you disregard the agitators, however, you must first run through a checklist.
What is our record on this issue?
Could we do better?
Is there any merit to the activists’ argument?
Are we already doing everything within our power to deal with this issue?
Are there areas of agreement between us and the activists that we can co-opt (i.e., borrow) or leverage?
Is the activists’ message resonating with the public?
If the answer to No. 6 is “no,” you are prepared to talk past the agitators and directly to your audience. In other words, they may be causing you anger, stress, and irritation, but few others are paying attention to them. They are essentially shouting into a dark tunnel.
The problem comes when the media starts paying attention. Remember, what drives many journalists is the famous credo, “The job of the news media is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That is why you often see the media’s narrative presented from the agitators’ perspective. Agitators tend to deliver provocative sound bites, which reporters are often more than willing to use. This gives the appearance of conflict—even in a one-sided fight.
At Ceisler Media, we have helped organizations think through and manage many of these cases. Sometimes the situation plays out over an extended period of time and you need to tolerate the noise and talk. Rather than responding to them, you respond past them with your own message. Other times, there may be room for a quick solution or compromise.
Regardless of which strategy you land on, do not resort to demeaning your fringe critics. That’s the fastest way to turn them into victims. From their perspective, their cause is noble, and by taking them on directly you risk elevating their status.
Remember, the news media loves conflict. That’s why outlets are so quick to grab onto allegations by fringe protesters without giving them the same kind of scrutiny they give government or business operators.
Next time you run into this kind of situation, ask the questions above, and then decide on and execute your strategy. And know that Ceisler Media has the expertise to help. Results are not always instant, but over time, facts, presented effectively and strategically, usually win out.
Kirk Dorn is a Senior Vice President at Ceisler Media's Philadelphia office.