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The impact of protestors on retailers and how to deal with them

12 April 2019

Everyone has the right to hold opinions and impart information and ideas including by peaceful assembly and association with others. These are ‘human rights’ which we all enjoy and which protect the right to protest and which may not be interfered with by a public authority. However, whilst the right to protest is enshrined in law, any protest must be lawful and balanced with the rights of others, including those at whom the protest is directed.

Retailers (as with most businesses) may from time to time find that they are the subject of a protest, demonstration or campaign. These protests often take place at and around retailers’ stores and include campaigns against the use of animal products, illegal workers and other ethical issues.

The march of social media (no names mentioned) plays a huge part in allowing protestors to spread their message, gather support and arrange their protests and demonstrations. These social media pages and protestors’ own websites often direct their followers to contact retailers by email, telephone and online – to bombard with repeated messages. They also invite followers to attend protests at stores, directing protestors to ‘bring signs and placards,’ leaflets, loudhailers, masks and video footage often with the stated intention of shutting the store down.

Peaceful protest is lawful, but some of these large scale protests are often far from peaceful. Protests come in different forms and employ various tactics. However, the general aim of the protestors in taking direct action is to cause a nuisance, annoyance, upset, alarm and distress to customers and staff, which in some cases amounts to harassment, with the intention of affecting sales to force the retailer to shut the store and/or to give up on their lawful business.

The protestors’ tactics include the use of loudhailers and loud PA systems, which they say is to spread the message, but in most cases is designed to cause as much of a nuisance and annoyance as possible. Protestors often act in a threatening and aggressive manner, blocking entrances and impeding staff and customers, whilst carrying placards and banners. They follow staff and customers shouting and screaming at those individuals and have been known to photograph them publishing details on-line. This behaviour can cause customers and staff to feel harassed and occasionally results in physical altercation.

Some tactics will be criminal in nature and a matter for the Police, although with stretched resources and the risk to officers there is often reluctance on the part of the Police to ‘police’ the protest. Their primary objective will be to maintain public order and their advice is often to seek an injunction order to prohibit certain behaviour.

The right to protest is, as indicated enshrined in law. The European Convention on Human Rights provides:

  • Article 10 – A right to freedom of expression and
  • Article 11 – A right to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

Together these rights form the rights to peaceful protest, but they are qualified rights and must be balanced with the rights of the business to protect it possessions, including its property rights and its business goodwill in financial terms and the public’s perception of the brand.

In the event that your business becomes or is likely to become the target of protestors take the threat seriously, be prepared, organise your response and be ready. Here are some tried and tested tips to help manage the situation:

  • Use the internet and social media. Protests will be advertised and followers called to attend. This may provide an early warning of an intended protest. Copies of internet postings should be retained;
  • Police – report any protest or intended protest to the Police, informing them that there is the potential for a breach of the peace and retain any crime reference numbers or similar;
  • Increase security – store owners may exclude person(s) from their store. Entry or refusal to leave is a trespass and security may use reasonable force to remove trespassers;
  • Staff – warn staff of potential protests and ensure that staff report details of any protests/incidents they witness;
  • Evidence – keep written records of all protests, including: times, dates, number of protestors, method of protest and any serious incident;
  • Customer complaints – keep a record of all complaints concerning the protest and enquire whether customers are prepared to give evidence;
  • CCTV – retain CCTV footage of all protests. Consider the use of body cameras; and finally
  • Keep the peace – Staff and where possible customers should be advised not to engage with protestors. This should be left to a nominated manager/spokesperson.

There are other tips which we would prefer not to share here for obvious reasons!

The effect of protests can range from a minor inconvenience to major disruption. The mere presence of protestors may deter customers from entering a store. Large scale protests are likely to involve significant police attendance. Members of the public might avoid the area generally. Staff may fear for their safety resulting in an increase in staff turnover and/or non-attendance. The behaviour of protestors is likely to cause a nuisance to neighbouring businesses and their actions might extend to contractors and suppliers. All of this could have a serious effect on the business which of course is the intention of the protestors.

Retailers might find therefore that in order to protect their business, brand, property, staff and customers the only option is to seek an injunction order including where possible under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to prohibit and/or limit certain behaviour of the protestors to ensure the retailer can continue to operate its legitimate business without unlawful interference from protestors.

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