A protester’s confetti attack on European Central Bank President Mario Draghi on Wednesday is the latest in a string of attempts by rabble-rousers to disrupt prominent press conferences.
Yet it isn’t just bodyguards and police officers who need to be prepared for similar interruptions; PR teams are also responsible.
It has become more challenging in recent years to screen credentialed members of the media due to the prevalence of blogs. Therefore it’s more difficult to pinpoint disruptors before they enter an event.
"There was a time you could rely on credentialed media, which was easily defined as outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NBC News," says Scott Farrell, Golin’s president of global corporate communications. "Now, due to blogging, anybody is considered a credentialed journalist."
Yet just because a blogger doesn’t carry marquee credentials, that doesn’t mean he is any less important in terms of getting a message out, Farrell adds. Unfortunately, this makes it much easier for a scammer to provide a fake blog name and tell an event organizer he has millions of followers on social media.
Because of this, PR pros need to be stricter during the press conference check-in process.
"With high-profile pressers, all media should be pre-approved and vetted to confirm employment and assignment, if they are not personally known to you," advises Robert Christie, VP of international media at Alibaba Group. "Additionally, staffing at entrances for events needs to be done by people who know the media and can visually identify them."
Databases such as Gorkana and photos on social media also make it easier for PR pros to visually identify attendees, he adds.
Another factor is an event’s location. If a press conference is being held by a controversial figure or is about a touchy subject, it’s best to avoid vulnerable venues such as parks, says Paul Tencher, MWW’s SVP and national director of public affairs. Instead, it’s best to hold the event in a place where they can exercise control.
"A private setting where you know the owner and are able to control logistics is very important," he says.
Adding layers of security to the check-in process in a location such as a hotel and making sure there are some "big, strong-armed, burly bouncers" doesn’t hurt either, Farrell adds.
Yet none of these safeguards are insurmountable. As Farrell says, "If a troublemaker wants to get in, he is going to get in."
Even the highest-profile speakers—Hillary Rodham Clinton will have Secret Service agents circling her each time she takes the podium in the next year and a half—should be prepared. Yet even she was forced to duck a shoe thrown at her while speaking in Las Vegas last April.
"It is the Secret Service’s job to keep crazy people away from [Clinton], but they are not going to stop the heckling pseudo-media person in the back of the room asking her why she erased all her emails," Farrell points out.
Therefore, the most important thing a PR pro can do is to help the speaker prepare to handle the unpredictable. Before doing this, a communicator should carry out fundamental risk assessments.
"The communicator should be identifying the event’s lightening-rod issues, and what kind of bad actors or protagonists the issue being discussed, or individual speaking, might attract," Farrell explains.
If the presser ends up veering off-course, Brigade VP of communications Andrew Noyes advises speakers to take anomalies in-stride.
For instance, if an interruption is severe and the subject matter is serious, the speaker should take a moment to reset and carry on with the agenda. However, if the interruption is comical and the mood is light, the speaker should not be afraid to show amusement before carrying on, he explains.
Tencher says a sense of humor is important because it can also serve as a distraction while staffers handle an interruption at a press conference. For instance, aides give President Barack Obama specific lines to use in the event of a disruption along with coaching and training, he adds.
"Some of Obama’s zingers have been really great," Tencher says. "He deals with [hecklers] incredibly well."
When the president said he had run his last election during this year’s State of the Union Address, the comment received a snarky round of applause from Republicans in the House Chamber.
He quickly retorted with, "I know, because I won both of them."
Likewise, President George W. Bush kept his cool after an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at him during a press conference in 2008. While the incident made the news, Tencher says it did not change the message, which involved Bush’s final trip to Iraq as President.
"Keep your composure and think quickly on your feet and you’ll be ready for anything your audience throws at you, whether it’s a tough question, a shoe, or a glitter bomb," adds Noyes.
Dow Chemical chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris hosted a Google Hangout session on Wednesday to discuss the company’s 2025 sustainability initiatives.
Golin supported the event and was able to easily moderate and filter out threatening questions and people, due to the controlled environment it was taking place in, says Farrell.
"We had a threat from an activist group that was looking for ways to interrupt the session," he explains. "But because it wasn’t a traditional press conference where you could crack the physical barriers and get into the room, we were able to screen them out."
Even so, Farrell notes that there will always be a need for face-to-face contact between VIPs and the media.
"If someone was to stop doing press conferences, they would begin to lose touch with their stakeholders and be seen as someone who is more fearful than open and transparent," he says.