Executive protection and the new normal of a world with COVID-19: Why we need more than program tweaks

May 19, 2020 - By Christian West & Brian Jantzen

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In order to keep our clients safe, happy and productive, executive protection professionals have always had to respond and adapt to major events and trends. As the world now faces the sobering consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak, the executive protection industry will once again have to evolve to stay relevant. Some of these changes will be superficial. Some will be so profound that they could be industry game changers. Are EP practitioners ready? We’d better be. Because otherwise, our clients will develop new solutions to cover their changing needs.

Some events are so significant that they cause long-lasting security reactions which may not actually mitigate risk. Some trends are so widespread that their impact raises fewer alarms than they should. It’s our job to understand the difference between real and perceived risk – and to deal with both.

The events that took place within a few hours on September 11, 2001, resulted in massive disruptions with long-lasting security implications, as did the financial crisis that stretched over 2007-2009. Less suddenly but just as unrelentingly, the rise of globalization and social media usage have had other enormous consequences for personal protection, as have digitalization, AI, and the Internet of Things.

All of these events and trends impact risk, both real and perceived, and must therefore also influence risk mitigation practices such as executive protection. On their own, each presents specific threats and reveals new vulnerabilities. Together, they add to the dynamic complexity of the real world in which our clients live and work – and where we are tasked with protecting lives, privacy, and reputations. The challenge is knowing how to prioritize this everchanging mix of risks – and figuring out how to mitigate them in the best way possible.

Did the risk of a terror attack increase after 9/11? Contrary to popular perceptions, not really. In most countries, the risk actually fell. For most principals, the risk of injury in a car accident or a home invasion is still far more probable than the risk of being a terrorist victim. But surely all the increased security at airports is worth it, anyway? Try googling TSA and red-teaming.

Conversely, how could something as common as social media increase a person’s risk? Well, for one thing, social media multiplies prominence, a key indicator for assassinations, as revealed in the Exceptional Case Study Project conducted by the U.S. Secret Service. For another, social media use can dramatically increase time and place predictability, making it way easier for bad guys to do bad things to good people.

So, what about COVID-19 and risk mitigation? Will we look back at this in a few years and say, phew, that was much ado about nothing? Or will we look back on Q1 2020 as the beginning of a new era for executive protection?

Of course, we don’t really know. Unlike some others in our industry, we haven’t suddenly picked up PhDs in epidemiology so we can second-guess all the scientists. And as boring as it is, we try to stick to the facts, stay in our lane, and use conspiracy theories only for entertainment purposes.

After all, we’re just executive protection guys who care about our clients and our profession. And that’s exactly why we’re convinced that we have to take the COVID-19 outbreak seriously. It already has had and will have huge health and economic consequences for billions of people around the world. And it just might be a gamechanger for the thousands of us who work in the EP industry.

Do we simply tweak existing programs to deal with the new situation? Or do we need some completely new approaches?

Although we all look back longingly to the good old days (does anyone remember January and February 2020?) when everything was business as usual, we know there’s no going back to a world unaffected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Even now, as countries and regions around the world are cautiously reducing lockdowns, it’s clear that not all of the societal shifts brought on by the pandemic will go away anytime soon.

Of course, the executive protection industry doesn’t live in a bubble, and things will change for us, too. There have already been and there will definitely be more program tweaks. There could be some even bigger shifts, too. Let’s take a look at some of these.

Hygiene should always have been a permanent feature of any executive protection SOP, and it will be from now on. How will our protective role change to adapt?

Alongside other predictable security risks, from now on the operational responsibilities of EP teams will include mitigating the client’s risk of viral infection. Hasn’t it always been on us to do this? Yes, if you think about it. No, if we’re honest about it.

We have always known about the importance of personal hygiene to reduce contagion, but until a few months ago, who among us can claim to have been a religious hand washer and heavy-duty disinfectant wiper? And although it’s never been cool to show up for work coughing and sneezing all over people, how many can raise their right hand and swear they’ve never gone to work with a slight fever – or worse?

Some of the questions executive protection professionals will have to answer in the new normal are obvious, and SOPs have already been or are being tweaked in response. For example:

  • How can clients know that the vehicles we provide have been properly sanitized? What kinds of quality assurance procedures should be used?
  • How can clients know if our drivers and agents are infected and contagious, or healthy and safe? How will testing be used to confirm the presence of the virus or antibodies?  
  • What types of PPE will drivers and agents use, and why?  How can clients know that drivers and agents understand the proper way to use PPE?
  • How will clients know that hotel rooms, meeting rooms, restaurants or other venues have been sanitized and are safe for them to be in?

Other issues promise to be trickier, however, and the role that executive protection professionals will play in answering them remains to be defined.

For example, our principals have always met with plenty of people about whom we know relatively little. Some background checks do happen, but if our principal is the CEO of a company, we don’t run checks on all the heads of state, trusted partners, or employees he or she will meet. In most cases, principals and their organizations decide on whom to let into private arrangements with the principal, not us. If there are physical threats, we’re always nearby and can quickly get between the principal and harm’s way. That’s not the case with a virus, however.

  • We can disinfect a meeting room, but is it our responsibility to control the health status of the people the principal meets? How?
  • What is an acceptable level of contagion risk, and how do we define that?
  • Which contagion mitigation measures should be used where? Plexiglass between people is OK in a supermarket checkout, but how does that look at a major company event?  

Corporate and private travel will change. How will secure travel services adapt?

Right now, very few people are traveling. Whether and when we’ll ever get back to pre-COVID levels remains to be seen, but it doesn’t look likely anytime soon. Still, some travel is essential now, and more will be later.

Executive protection practitioners will have to adapt to changing travel needs. Obviously, the hygiene tweaks mentioned above will also be relevant to secure travel, and SOPs will be adapted accordingly. But what else could change?

Plenty, actually:

  • For years, our travel teams have departed from Europe and North America points all over the globe to do advances and details for our principals. As travel restrictions make this more difficult, we expect to depend more on in-country resources. How will we ensure the same service levels?
  • Converted sprinter vans are already used as mobile offices to increase productivity and comfort in slow-moving commutes. Will more executives start to use these for travel, too? What will the consequences be for executive protection?
  • Forget about sprinter vans. Why not pimp out a full-sized RV for a first-class road trip? Of course, it’s not going to be an alternative for overseas trips. But for some travel in some geographies (the U.S. East Coast, parts of Europe, etc.) RVs could be a comfortable way to keep people safe, happy and productive for days at a time.
  • Finally, instead of moving an executive around a city, what about moving the city to the executive – or, more precisely, somewhere in between? If a CEO can handle 7-10 meetings a day in a city, how many could he or she handle if all meetings took place at the airport? Can we imagine a mobile trailer comfortably kitted out for secure meetings just steps from the corporate aircraft and within the security perimeter of the FBO?

The EPTO will need to learn some new tricks. Or work with a new colleague, the EPHO

Just a few months ago, we wrote a blog about why we believe it’s necessary to train and hire the first executive protection technology officers, or EPTOs. Cyber threats are now simply too prevalent for executive protection professionals to ignore or leave to the IT department to take care of.

Now, before we’ve even hired our first EPTO, we already need to re-write the job description to include anti-viral technology. So, say hello to the executive protection health officer, or EPHO, or the combined EPTO/EPHO.

Whatever we call this new role, we’re convinced it’s necessary to have someone on the protective team who understands the various technologies of viral infection mitigation. What kinds of PPE should be used by whom, when? What are the acceptable disinfection protocols? How can we best use available tests, whether for the virus itself or for antibodies?  How can we use UV, chlorine dioxide or other technologies to disinfect rooms?

Again, we’re not planning to start advanced courses in theoretical epidemiology any time soon. But we do recognize the need to get smarter – at a very practical level – about what works and what doesn’t work – and the ROI of these various methods for our clients.

What does the new normal hold for you?

How do you think EP will look in a world with COVID-19? What about COVID-23? Do you also see seismic shifts in addition to procedural tweaks ahead?

Ping us on social media to let us know. Chances are, we won’t be sitting down for a drink and a chat for a while.

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

Christian West

Founder and CEO

Christian has been active in the executive protection industry since the late 1980s, when he worked for Danish musicians who relocated to Hollywood. Upon returning to Denmark, he founded his own EP company, which he quickly grew into Scandinavia’s largest, before it was acquired by Securitas.

Christian founded AS Solution in 2003, and again in 2009 followed his international clients to the US, where he is now based. An active member of ASIS and a leader in the corporate executive protection industry, Christian has personally planned and led high-profile engagements in over 76 countries for a wide variety of corporate and high net worth individual clients, including the international roadshow for the biggest IPO in history.

Brian Jantzen

Head of AS Solution

After leaving the US Marine Corps as a captain in the early 1990s, Brian has pioneered corporate executive protection services internationally for Fortune 500 companies, high net worth families and NGOs.

Brian has provided protection at the highest levels of corporate and philanthropic environments in over 35 countries. With his demonstrated ability to align security operations with both the client’s organizational goals and personal preferences, Brian uses his strong relationship building, collaboration and project and vendor management expertise to create security solutions that deliver program efficiencies and customer satisfaction. Brian graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Sociology and is the subject matter expert chair for the ASIS Executive Protection Council.