Jan. 22, 2021

Managing Hecklers at Your Public Events

Managing Hecklers at Your Public Events

Recently, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, the new majority leader in the upper chamber, was making a statement about recent events in Washington D.C. when his comments were suddenly interrupted by a lone heckler loudly airing numerous grievances.

The mid-day event was being broadcast live on cable news channels, allowing a national television audience to witness the disruption, and the senator’s response, in real time.

Behind a podium on a busy New York City street the statesman stood, enduring a storm of berating comments hurled by an angry intruder. Calmly and without reaction, he said nothing, allowing his event to be overrun by this constituent.

A staff member whispered in the senator’s ear. Members of his security detail calmly made their way between the official and the offender. Photographers and journalists turned to capture the unfolding scene.

As stressful as this was to watch on live television, viewers’ angst likely paled in comparison to the anxiety that surely was building up among those who were there. What started out as a well-attended media opportunity for the senior senator ended abruptly, with cameras breaking away, live coverage lost that day.

If this ever happens to you, it would be wise to remember this moment, because it was handled expertly by everyone involved. The episode serves as a real-time lesson for anyone expected to appear in person before public and media audiences.

First, and most important, know that you will set the tone for the response when the disturbance is happening. If you overreact, everyone around you will too. Senator Schumer was very calm. His cool reaction was reflected by his team.  

The staff also weathered the situation well. But don’t leave that to chance. Make sure members of your team discuss the steps they would take to address the situation if trouble erupts. For example, you probably won’t be the one talking to the media afterward. You might not even be there for very long, depending on the security response. But your staff almost certainly will remain on the scene after you’ve gone, so make sure they are prepared to lead media and other witnesses through the remaining chaos.

The security officers responsible for protecting the senator also remained steady, even as the protestor shouted in their faces. Their only job is to protect their principal, but they are under an intense microscope, so be sure the officers on your team, if you have a security detail, know how you feel about these kinds of incidents. Make sure they know what you’d like them to consider as they assess and implement their response.

The media was probably stressed out too, but they also were ready to monitor how the incursion would be managed, poised, if not eager, to cover a scuffle. Yet because the crisis was handled so well, they found no miscues by the senator and his team, and ultimately had nothing to report. That’s the result you want when plans are unceremoniously derailed.

As you think about this incident, and your response to a similar situation, consider this advice:

  • Talk with staff and security officers how you would like to handle a similar event. Advance planning is key to ensure that everyone knows what to do when there is no time to huddle. What should you do? How might staff react? If possible, how would you like your security officers to respond? How will you address media coverage, including social media videos, that could result from such an event?

  • Decide whether you would walk away from a situation or stay put to avoid further escalation that could result in security officers needing to put hands on a protestor. Discuss ways to reduce the conflict.

  • Have a staff member offer to meet with the aggrieved person at another time, to provide an audience and restore calm.

  • When possible, avoid holding events in uncontrolled spaces. It’s not clear why the senator held his event on a New York City sidewalk, but a space like that is tougher to control than a conference room located safely inside an office.

  • If you must hold an outside event, assign extra personnel to staff posts farther from the location to engage people before they are able to interrupt your plans. Consider asking local officials to temporarily close down sidewalks and other access points to improve control and security associated with the event.

What we don’t know about Monday’s incident is what happened when the networks ended their live coverage. But it’s likely the rest of the encounter was handled off camera the same way it was managed when it was being broadcast nationwide. Whatever the final outcome, it’s a response worth noting, a positive example set by Senator Schumer and his staff for anyone who makes public appearances.