The Time I Was Attacked At A Board Meeting

by Joan Garry

You and your organization will make unpopular (read: controversial decisions). How you manage them will make all the difference.

10 Steps to Managing a Crisis

This is a story about what I did to provoke a presenter to literally attack me at a board meeting. And yes, I mean physically.

It’s also a story about making a tough and controversial decision – one that caused a crisis for my organization.

But most importantly, it’s a story with important lessons about the right way to handle crisis situations at an organization. Lessons we all need from time to time.

In 1998, the Coors Brewing Company became a sponsor of GLAAD (where I was the Executive Director.) We became the first gay rights organization to accept sponsorship dollars from a company “tainted” by board members’ affiliations with the right wing Heritage Foundation.

This move ended a long-standing boycott by a small group of men now so old they were no longer doing a lot of standing. But they had been men with a mission for years and had mobilized an entire community to turn Coors into a polluted brand for gay and lesbian consumers.

It was my decision and boy did it hit the fan. Not so much with the anti-gay opposition, but with members of my own tribe.


What was I thinking? Why did I do it? Did I expect to get hate mail from members of my own community?

And how did I manage through it?   Here are the ten steps I followed in making what I knew would be a terribly unpopular decision.

1) Do your homework

The truth was that no one had looked at Coors’ track record on LGBT issues in years. So I did. And guess what? Coors actually had a BETTER employee nondiscrimination policy in place than almost any of our other corporate sponsors!

Secondly, the Coors family now had an openly gay member in a senior role who was a champion and advocate.

Third, I had never investigated the giving of board members of any other corporate sponsor and I had no intention of introducing that kind of litmus test moving forward.

Based on my homework, I felt strongly that Coors met or exceeded the work done on behalf of the LGBT community relative to other sponsors.

2) Make this a win on multiple levels

That said I was not going to serve as Coors’ PR department. I wanted the most senior people at Coors to know I was walking through fire and wanted to push them to do even more. So we asked for and were invited to meet with the Coors CEO and I let him know that, like it or not, they were being held to a higher standard.

3) Make a decision and generate a soundbite for each stakeholder group

Far too often, the decision is leaked or announced without a smart strategy.  Opponents look to twist messages and can do it to a fare thee well unless the messages are clear, unapologetic and even handed.

4) Announce your decision with confidence and with your prepared soundbites

I refused to keep all this on the down low. I was proud of my decision and of my affiliation with Coors. So I treated them like any other corporate sponsor and issued a press release. Did I know this would ignite the community? Sure. But I was confident in my decision and ready.

5) Go anywhere you’re invited. Take the heat and stand your ground

Our decision coincided with the annual conference of LGBT activists held that year in Pittsburgh. I was invited to come for a full one-hour workshop on the Coors’ decision. I don’t think they anticipated such an enthusiastic “I’d love to.”

It wasn’t a workshop; it was a public flogging.

6) Don’t carry anyone else’s water

I refused to be flogged on someone else’s behalf. I called the Coors LGBT marketing staff member (Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter, Mary…. Now you know where she was before campaigning for her dad.) “You’re not busy on X date, right? Hope you like Pittsburgh because that’s where you are headed.” To her credit she agreed and the two of sat and took questions and heat for an hour. And then it was over.

I scored a lot of points by just showing up.

7) Be creative / unorthodox

The Coors Boycott committee contacted me and asked for time on the upcoming Board meeting agenda. I’d just been flogged in Pittsburgh so I figured why not. The board chair agreed. We gave them a finite period of time.

This is not something I would typically have encouraged my board to do (its decision) but I wanted them to see the players and understand what they were dealing with. They had real anger about Coors rooted in a long history and so we worked hard to honor this and felt that a board presentation would be the right way to go. And in addition, we’d be able to tell the community that we honestly and visibly took the time to hear their concerns.

Unfortunately, their anger got the better of them that day in the board meeting. One of the gentlemen lunged at me and I needed to be escorted from the meeting.

I still don’t regret inviting them.

8) Use your best judgment as it relates to letting go

Organizations can make matters worse by continuing to obsess about the articles in the press, the blogs, the comment trolls, etc. In our case, Pittsburgh + Board meeting + holding firm = letting go. It worked.

9) Debrief

If you read my blog regularly you already know that I’m a huge proponent of planning and debriefing. Debriefing and notes that follow keep you from making the same mistakes twice.

And in crisis management, a small mistake can become a very big one very quickly.

10) Take a day or two off

You and your staff will be exhausted. Cause related organizations are always fighting opposition for some reason from someone. But when it comes from the folks you represent, it’s especially hard. And especially tiring.

I think I took a day off, slept late, and had a Coors with dinner.