Handling the Occupy movement's more aggressive tactics

Occupy protesters disrupted shareholder meetings at Wells Fargo and GE last week. What do you need to know if your company is targeted?
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Sunday, April 29, 2012

YARMOUTH, Maine—Occupy protesters disrupted shareholder meetings at Wells Fargo in San Francisco and General Electric in Detroit last week, marking the movement’s use of more aggressive tactics to regain its momentum and the notice of mainstream media.

The events also mark the need for corporate security managers to reassess how they plan for shareholder meetings, according to Bob Oatman, an executive protection specialist and president of R.L. Oatman & Associates.

And by reassess, Oatman means toss the old plans and begin from scratch. “All bets are off,” Oatman told Security Director News. “Corporations and companies that are publicly traded really have to think about the planning stage. If something worked last year, you can’t think it will work this year. You have to throw out the plans and start looking at this thing with a fresh perspective. ... If you don’t plan, plan to fail.”

Now that Occupy protesters are buying shares in companies with the express purpose of entering the shareholder meetings to disrupt them from the inside, as happened with Wells Fargo and GE, security managers need to change their game and adopt a “defensive posture,” Oatman said.

One key move security managers can take towards a more defensive posture is to consider moving the shareholder meeting from a public place, like a hotel or resort, to private property. Holding a shareholder meeting at the company headquarters or on a corporate campus would give security managers more control over the venue’s security, including knowing the security staff and procedures for locking it down if things get out of hand. “Why take it outside? Why not take it inside?” Oatman said. “Then if you want to increase the level of security you can do that, because it’s your campus and you know all the bells and whistles there.”

Whether the event is held on public or private property, a secure perimeter should be set up with checkpoints to allow employees and registered shareholders to enter the meeting. Wells Fargo had shareholders pass through metal detectors and “several layers of security,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Oatman said it’s important to treat everyone equally, though. However, if it’s clear that certain shareholders are there with the intent to disrupt, Oatman suggests taking measures to limit their ability to succeed, such as controlling the seating arrangements. There may be other measures that can be taken, but security managers need to be in close communication with corporate counsel before making any decisions that could infringe on the rights of shareholders. “If you sense that 15 people show up and you just know they’re going to be nothing but trouble, I’m going to depend upon the attorney to give me a ruling,” he said. “You may be a shareholder, but if you’re coming onto my property to be disruptive, my response is I’m not going to allow my other shareholders to be injured because then we’re going to be liable because we didn’t protect everybody.”

Some of Oatman’s event-planning advice should come as no surprise to security professionals: “Hopefully you’re wired into the right intelligence, and you’re keeping your ears open,” he said. “You should definitely be talking to law enforcement on a local basis and, honestly, you have to have the right support because these things can get really [out of hand]. They’re looking for media exposure.”

Oatman suggests hiring off-duty police officers to work inside the meeting. Not enough to create a strong police presence—business-conscious security professionals need to keep in mind the effect that could have on the majority of peaceful shareholders who are not there to protest—but enough to handle any events that get out of hand. With that added support, he also suggested transitioning executive protection staff from a fixed position into a counter-intelligence role in the crowd.

Above all else, security planning should include the security manager sitting down with everyone involved in the planning of the shareholder meeting, from the public relations to legal departments, to make sure there’s a plan in place and that everyone is on the same page with it.

Also, corporate leadership needs to be briefed on what to do if things get out of hand, including how to quietly and professionally be protected and moved out of harm’s way. “If all of us are on the same page,” Oatman said. “The payback is it will be a much more organized event.”