Mob Rule: Reacting to an Angry Crowd

Last Updated Aug 12, 2009 1:03 PM EDT

Sometimes it's difficult to feel sorry for our elected leaders in Washington. But when you watch video after video of legislators getting shouted down by angry constituents/actors at recent forums on health care reform, it's hard not to wonder:

How would I handle a similar situation?

Not well, I fear. So I turned to communications expert John Baldoni, who recently wrote How to Speak to an Unruly Crowd on Harvard Business Publishing.

I liked this tip the best.

  • "Be resolute. If the shouters will not be silenced, then give the rest of the audience an opportunity to voice their opinions. Negotiate time to continue but promise to take questions from the audience as soon as you finish your remarks. If this occurs, abandon the script and speak directly to the audience. Be brief. And keep your cool. Shouting back makes you one of the mob; speaking with confidence acknowledges your authority over the message."
Keep your cool is the best advice here. The exact moment politicos lost their temper at health care demonstrators was the moment you knew they had also lost control of the debate. Baldoni says be prepared to walk off stage if need be.

But do it with dignity.

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.