By David L. Johnson
Protective services agents play a greater role in how their VIP is perceived by the press than they know. Here are some tips for how protective service agents can ensure that the press gets access without endangering the VIP, so everyone can do their job. (Online Exclusive)
The media frenzy spawned by the BP oil well spill and the government’s response to the disaster reminds us that the security agent plays an integral role in managing the way a story gets reported and, therefore, the public perception of the company or government agency. Even a good PR message can be squandered or even destroyed if the presentation is mangled because of poor control.
During the very public clean up of the oil spill, there were multiple events where members of the media were reportedly denied access to interview clean-up workers. These reports became serious enough that Mr. Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP America, Inc., issued a formal statement on June 9, 2010, flatly stating that these reports were not true. However, video footage clearly depicted one such event between reporter Scott Walker, a reporter from NBC New Orleans affiliate WDSU, being denied access to do just that by individuals purporting to be private security officers two days after Mr. Suttles reportedly denied this was happening.
Security agents are not often in control of the content of the media message. Nevertheless, they should always be in control of how that message gets delivered, because how it gets presented and reported will affect the company’s brand. There are some proven effective methods for making sure you get the best results from the press corps.
There are really only two ways you will have contact with the press. There are planned appearances such as a planned news conference, and there are impromptu contacts where the press just shows up in your area or they happen to recognize your principal. In the latter instance, they may try to take advantage of the “target of opportunity,” such as when the principal is moving from a building to a motorcade, to ask questions.
Inappropriate contact with members of the press can get a protective service agent in a lot of trouble, so I’ll discuss ways to deal with this part of the job. American journalists have certain rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and they guard those rights vigilantly. Your principal, like everyone else, also has rights that guarantee him freedom of movement and a certain level of privacy. Your problems can begin when the rights of the media and the rights of your principal come into conflict.
Rules of Thumb
During planned press, contact such as a news conference, there are very few problems, and I will give you some suggestions about the care and feeding of press people that will serve to keep things rosy in those environments. It is the impromptu contacts with the press that can result in difficulties for the protective agent and give one opportunities to fail. Because of this danger, it is essential that you remember that everything you do while dealing with the press could be subject to intense scrutiny. So here are some general rules of thumb.
Rule Number One: Never make any comment to the press that could be construed as your principal’s position on any matter. You only comment is “No comment.” Never, ever, give your own opinion about any topic, subject, or matter, period. If you do, you are likely to discover that your principal disagrees with you. It has been said that the perceived level of intelligence of a speaker is directly correlated to how much you agree with the speaker. Zip it.
Rule Number Two: Never, ever, put your hands on a member of the press unless directed to do so by your principal. Members of the press are just like those in any other profession. There are some very professional ones, some mediocre ones, and some that you’ll just want to throttle. A warning to the wise, if you let these people get to you, and you manhandle them, you should plan to watch the evening news. That’s when you’ll get to see how your 15 minutes of fame put you in the unemployment line.
Occasionally you will find yourself in a press predicament. For example, your principal is entering a hotel lobby where zealous members of the press are just waiting to pounce on someone who will give them a juicy comment or two about a controversial subject. These reporters may impede or even block your principal’s path while they shout out their questions. If you’re the point man in that formation, tag, you’re it – the fickle finger of fate has selected you to be on the spot. The one thing you don’t want to do is pick up one of these characters by the scruff of the neck and move him aside. If you do, whatever the original reason for interest in your principal will immediately fade into the background and you will become the focus of the moment. Later you can watch the evening news report about the Gestapo-like security man guarding his corporate executive. You’ll also get to see what the film footage of the ceiling, floor, and parts of the hall, walls, and people’s torsos looks like on TV when a cameraman gets jostled. Your name will never be mentioned in the news report but your principal’s name will be mentioned – incessantly. The focus of the story will be on how innocent members of the press, while pursuing the public interest, were abused for just trying to do their job. If you don’t believe me, then do an Internet search on Angelina Jolie’s “Bodyguard” roughing up a photographer in Pune, India. Using Google, I got 224,000 hits on that and all of the stories led off with her name, not the bodyguard’s name. Finally, your principal will likely fry you on the spot and leave you behind like a spent match.
If you find yourself surrounded by the press, the best thing to do is just stop, say “Excuse me” or “Please, let us pass” and gesture with your hands to show them the path you want to use and then stay attuned to your principal. The principal should give you some kind of verbal lead. If he wants to answer questions, then you’ll stay. If your principal wants to move on without taking questions, then he should take the verbal lead and simply tell the reporters that he has to go. At that point, you’ll be able to gently make a “hole” in the crowd for your principal to pass through. If you do have to put your hands on reporters to get your principal past, then so be it. The difference is that the principal made the decision, not you.
Avoiding the Press
You may work for a principal who does not want exposure to the press at certain times or at all. You may even be given instructions to avoid the press as much as possible. If this is the case, there are some deceptive tactics you can use.
For example, if the press gets word that your principal is staying in a hotel, they may call the hotel to verify that he is there. The hotel will be proud your principal is staying there and may even give them his room number. No matter how many times you ask hotel managers not to give out information about your principal, invariably some desk clerk or switchboard operator won’t get the word or will get tricked by some clever reporter. Before you know it, your command post agents will intercept some reporter walking down the hallway. If the reporter asks for an interview with the principal, the protective agents should avoid speaking for the principal and refer the reporter to the member of the principal’s staff—usually at the home office—who arranges interviews and handles inquiries. If the principal has public affairs or information management specialists who travel with them, the agent can direct reporters to them.
Normally, if reporters are told that the principal is not granting interviews or taking questions at that time, they will leave the area. However, they may set up in the lobby or just outside the front door in a public area. They will try to get some film footage of the principal coming out to his motorcade while shouting out some questions. If you determine that reporters are still in the area and are likely to attempt contact with the principal, every member of the security detail should be made aware of this as soon as possible. If reporters are in a public area, you can’t make them leave. They have a right to be there and do their jobs, no matter how uncomfortable that is for your principal. If reporters are still in the area, the detail leader should tell the principal and ask how he would like the situation handled. Remember, you are dealing with the principal’s image, not yours.
If the principal says he wants to avoid the press entirely, then the detail leader can suggest the use of hotel-controlled areas such as underground parking garages where you can deny press access through coordination with the hotel security element (hotel property is private property after all) or use diversionary tactics.
Many reporters are familiar with protective security tactics, can recognize security agents for what they are, and will maneuver according to what the security team members do. If your principal has to depart the hotel or building while reporters are still in the area, send a security agent to an exit as if he is preparing for the principal’s departure. The press will key off the agent’s activity and may even ask if the principal is about to leave. The agent can tell the reporters “Yes,” and ask them to stand in a certain location so as not to interfere with his departure. The principal can then depart through a different exit or the parking garage. When the press sees the motorcade whiz by, they’ll know they’ve been had. All the agent has to do is shrug his shoulders, complain that the other security team members messed him up again by sending him to the wrong exit, and bid the reporters a good day.
If there is no alternative exit, another method to divert the press is to cry wolf a few times. Here is one tactic: An agent goes to the lobby and begins reading a newspaper. After a few minutes, the agent presses his finger to his earpiece as if he is listening to someone. He then folds the newspaper and moves to a door which he props open. The press will key off the agent’s moves and begin to hoist cameras on their shoulders and warm up microphones.
The agent waits a few minutes while the press stands around, again presses his finger to his ear, shrugs his shoulders, and goes back to reading his newspaper. The reporters will assume the principal’s departure has been delayed and will put down their cameras, put away their microphones, and light up cigarettes. Play this game a couple of times and they’ll know you’re playing the “cry wolf” game or think that your whole operation is shoddy. Either way, eventually they’ll quit gearing up at some point based on your actions. They may even ask you when he’s leaving – this can give you an opportunity to feed disinformation by saying something like, “Well any time now, but it’s a heck of a day with lots of delays.” You can then time your departure based upon times the press stands down, now that you can discern behavioral patterns. If suddenly your principal appears, by the time the press can react, he will be out the door and off down the street in his limousine.
The planned press conference is a formal event that provides the protection team a much easier environment to operate in. In the early stages of planning a press conference, the protection team must collaborate with the principal’s staff members who are responsible for handling contact with members of the press. There is a tendency for protective agents to think that managing a press conference is not part of the protection function and back away and let the press relations people run the operation. Don’t do that – you’ll end up working a room that isn’t set up properly from the security stand point and dealing with contingency plans that aren’t the best.
For example, you may not have access to an exit at your back for an evacuation route. You never want to evacuate through a panicked crowd, so get involved, be proactive, and get it set up right. Public affairs people are very proficient at their work, but they don’t always take into account the security issues surrounding a press conference. It’s important that the protective detail develop a close and effective working relationship with the public affairs detail. If you can educate them about security measures and the constraints that you recommend, the public affairs folks will get familiar with the security measures you will employ and make your job a lot easier.
Establishing press control measures is not normally the responsibility of the protection team but rather the responsibility of those who control security at the site of the press conference. The protection team’s responsibility at a press conference is to verify that security arrangements have been made, to establish procedures for moving the principal into and out of security cordons, and to respond to an “attack on principal” (AOP). However, if no one else is in control of site security then the protective service team must assume this responsibility too.
If site security has not been arranged by someone else, the protection team should collaborate with that “point of contact” (POC) and the principal’s public affairs staff. Although you will tailor your security operation to the threat, all of the protection tactics that you use in other situations can be applied to a press conference. When making your security plans, remember: journalists have a job to do—gather news. If you make their job easy, they will usually comply with your security requirements for gaining access to the site and the principal. By working closely with the principal’s media staff you can even make things easier on the principal during the conference.
Press Conference Tips
The following are some general considerations that pertain to procedures you can use during a press conference.
In a perfect world, the principal’s public information specialist will personally invite members of the press and will be able to provide you with a list of those invited and are planning to attend. The information specialist is also usually the one who arranges for the room to be used for the conference. The advance agent should survey the room to determine if there are any peculiar requirements and communicate with the information specialists about preferences for setting up the room and to resolve any potential problems.
For example, it will be helpful if the room can be set up well in advance of the press’s arrival. This will give you time to make a final security sweep of the room. Suggest that the podium the principal will use be positioned near an exit door other than the one to be used by the press. You want to be able to freely escort the principal in and out of the room away from the press, while providing an evacuation route that will not be clogged with other people. Then place some type of physical barrier between this private exit and the general seating area. Rope and stanchions used in movie theaters work well as a barrier. This type of barrier relays a non-verbal message to other people in the room: stay behind this line. The farther you place this barrier from the podium the better, not less than three to five feet from the podium area. Rope and stanchion will not stop a determined attacker, but remember: this is normally a group of people that has been invited and the protection team will have, at least visually, screened them at the entrance to the conference room.
The podium barrier serves two purposes. First, it keeps people out of the area; it’s as simple as that. Most people get the idea when they see a barrier and will comply with the message you’re sending by placing them there. Second, a rope barrier in a press conference serves the same purpose as a fence-line formation: it provides a better observation position for the protection team and allows for a quick response to an attack. By establishing a stand-off distance with a barrier, your attention will immediately be drawn to someone who attempts to enter the area or extend a weapon at the principal. Barriers can also provide you with space in which to place agents in static security posts between the crowd and the principal. You should place the agents close enough to the principal to allow for an effective response to an intruder or attacker, but not so close that they would appear on camera. There are very few times when protective service team members should be seen on camera. This is another instance in which the principal’s image is protected by using cordons of security and screening procedures.
If you think the threat level warrants it, set up a screening checkpoint at the press entrance. Use the invitation list the information specialist provided to verify each person has been granted access. You may also use explosive detection dogs to screen equipment prior to bringing it into the room. Once you have screened people and equipment you can direct them to where they can set up equipment such as microphones and tape recorders. Inform them that no one will be allowed access to the podium or table where this equipment is set up during the conference.
If you can, provide a raised platform at the rear of the room to set up cameras and lights so cameras will be able to shoot over the audience’s heads. You use these camera “risers” in order to confine these people to a single area that you can control, and make it easy for them to set up and tear down quickly. Make sure there are plenty of electrical outlets in the camera area and get extension cords and power strip outlets if you need them. Most hotels have plenty of risers for just this purpose, so use them. If you don’t have access to risers, you should still concentrate the cameras in this area. If you don’t or can’t provide these amenities and fail to control the area, you are inviting delay and confusion as camera crews climb all over each other to set up and jockey for position.
Ask the information specialist to print name labels that can be placed on the back of chairs so invitees will know where to sit. Invited journalists should sit up front since you know who they are. Other attendees should be seated toward the rear of the room at extended range.
It has been my experience that these procedures will be easily understood and readily accepted by a professional press corps. In some cases you may need to explain to them that the security measures you have employed are to ensure the safety of everyone in the room. You can’t just assume that everyone there is a professional journalist and means no harm – remember John Hinckley was in the press pen area when he shot President Reagan.
If a prepared statement is part of the press conference, ask the public information specialist if it can be disseminated prior to the appearance of the principal. Having a prepared statement in advance will help reporters. They will appreciate the consideration because they will be able to read it in advance, make notes, and formulate questions if there will be a question and answer (Q&A) session. Using a prepared statement also helps the protection team do its job. If reporters have work to do before the conference begins, they are more likely to find their assigned seat and sit down. There are two more things you will want to tell the press corps before the conference begins: whether or not there will be a Q & A session and to please remain seated until the principal has exited the room.
These tactics will facilitate your requirements for a controlled environment and make it easy for journalists to do their job. If it sounds like I am going out of my way to help journalists, you’re right, I am. If I help them, they are more likely to help me control the environment. This will give me the maximum opportunity to recognize an attack before or while it is developing, not after. If I don’t, then I get to deal with problems as they try to do their jobs. They will leave the press pen I’ve set up or try to get their microphones or cassette recorders on the podium during the event while the principal is there. Setting it up right from the advance perspective makes my life a whole lot easier and the principal safer.
David L. Johnson is President of ITG Consultants and author of ADVANCE: The Guide For Conducting A Protective Security Advance (Varro Press) from which this article was developed.