5 lessons learned about social media and executive protection

By Christian West & Brian Jantzen of AS Solution

There are a lot of concerns these days about social media and security. Most of this has to do with the security of personal data. Can hackers get into our accounts? What do companies big and small know about us? How are they using it? How securely are they storing it?

These are of course legitimate concerns for everyone, whether you’re a highly prominent CEO or a busy high school student, and there are things we all can do to improve our online security. We’ll even include some general social media safety tips in this blog.

But we’d also like to look at the question of social media and security through a different and narrower lens: executive protection in corporate and high net worth contexts. In this blog, we share some thoughts on the matter – and at the same time reach out to colleagues in the industry to hear what others are thinking.

1. Social media is part of our world. Like our clients, EP pros need to embrace it, not reject it.

One suggestion regarding social media that invariably comes up is “just don’t”. Just don’t use social media, then you won’t have any concerns about social media and security. We even hear this from others in the EP industry.

Before we go any further, let’s put this lame idea out of its misery right away.

This is like telling a principal that road accidents are dangerous, so it’s better never to drive anywhere. Yes, that would mitigate risk. But so would locking the principal up in Fort Knox.

According to recent research by the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, all but three Fortune 500 companies are active on social media with corporate accounts:

  • 98% use LinkedIn
  • 88% use Twitter
  • 85% use Facebook
  • 75% use YouTube
  • 53% use Instagram
  • 42% maintain blogs
  • 31% use Pinterest
  • 10% use Snapchat

Although a surprising 60% of Fortune 500 CEOs still do not maintain public social media accounts in their own names, a growing number do. More will come. Many have huge followings that far surpass the number following their companies’ corporate accounts. Our job as EP professionals is not about dictating how our principals should lead their lives. It’s about facilitating the kinds of lives they want to lead – and keeping them safe, happy and productive while we do it.

By the way, are you following your principals on social media? No, you’re too busy for that or you’re not a big fan of social media yourself? Really?

Keeping track of what your principal is up to on social media helps EP pros in several ways. For one thing, it helps you understand what’s going on in his or her life and what’s important to him or her. Being aware of contexts that are meaningful to your client is a good idea no matter what business you’re in – including the business of executive protection.

But even more importantly, observing what the principal is doing on social media – and what others are doing on social media regarding your principal – helps you improve your protective practices. You need to follow and understand what everyone else on the planet – including bad guys – can follow and understand about the principal simply by taking a look at their smartphones. You need to monitor what others monitor. And you need to add your protective perspective so you’re looking for things that can impact the principal’s wellbeing and productivity, including time and place predictability.

2. Time and place predictability are not your friends. Neither is everyone who uses social media to know when the principal is where.

As anyone working in protective security should know, time and place predictability increase vulnerability to threats.

The principal’s time and place predictability help the bad guys. That’s why they conduct surveillance prior to any bad deed: the ability to predict when a victim will be where helps them plan an attack – and increases their chances of getting away with it. It’s their form of forward thinking.

And that’s why protective teams have our own methods of forward thinking to deal with time and place predictability. We use surveillance detection to discover and thwart whoever is doing the hostile surveillance. We mix up routes so the principal is not commuting via the same streets at the same time every day. We keep access to principal itineraries to the absolute minimum. And then we organize security as if itinerary secrecy has been compromised – because it often is, and EP agents cannot completely control who knows what about a principal’s trip.

A lot of what happens via social media increases time and place predictability. A simple Facebook or Instagram post can broadcast your location accurately, quickly and widely, for example. Maybe the principal, like the rest of us, just wants to say “Hey, check out this cool picture that shows you what I’m up to and who I’m with.” This can make a lot of sense for both personal and business reasons, but unless it’s done mindfully it can also increase time and place predictability exponentially.

3. Huge numbers of social media followers can increase the probability of risk

Consider this little thought experiment.

First, let’s say the principal has 10 million Instagram followers. Think that’s farfetched? Ten million followers puts you pretty far down the list of the most-followed Instagram accounts – 392nd, to be exact.

OK, let’s then say the principal is in Delhi, or somewhere else where he or she has many followers, and posts something that reveals time and place predictability. And then let’s assume that…

  • …of the principal’s ten million followers, 1% (100,000 people) live in Delhi and can get to the location within an hour, and that
  • of the principal’s followers who are less than an hour of the principal, 1% (1,000 people) decide on the spur of the moment to hustle over to the principal’s location to see if they can catch a glimpse of him or her.

Are you ready for 1,000 excited followers to show up at the location unexpectedly? Can anyone be?

Whether it’s an Instagram post, a Facebook Live stream, or an airplane pulling a banner, such rapid dissemination of the principal’s current whereabouts can have a significant impact on crowd control, how we handle POIs, and more.

4. Everyone’s a journalist

Remember the old days before everyone had a high-resolution camera and instant access to millions of potential viewers – all in their pockets? No, you don’t remember life before the internet and smartphones? That’s OK. That just means you’re not ready to retire for another few years.

EP professionals need to understand the implications of anyone being able to take a picture (of the principal, of the principal’s family or colleagues, of the EP team, of anyone or anything) and then posting it to social media where millions, and potentially billions, can see it in seconds. Our age of instant, always-on, mobile, and personal publishing changes everything. Also EP.

Let’s say your principal is in a restaurant having a meal with a colleague or their family.  It is quite likely that someone in that restaurant will post a picture on social media – it may even be the restaurant owner trying to announce that a prominent person likes their food.  Whether it is completely innocent (the child of another diner) or a little more opportunistic (the restaurant owner trying to piggyback on the prominence of your principal) it might mean that a crowd of people shows up before dinner is done; it definitely means that your principal’s privacy has been violated to one extent or another.  Of course, there is no lawful or discreet way for a protector to prevent all photos or postings – access to smartphones and the internet is just too ubiquitous across all age groups and societies. Still, EP professionals must consider this ever-changing type of exposure as part of the overall risk environment.

5. EP agents can also be social media stars. That’s usually not a good thing.

EP professionals must also carefully consider what we do and how we act. Just like the principal, images of our own actions can be in front of thousands of people in the blink of an eye.  This can cause unwanted attention that infringes on the principal’s privacy or reputation. It can also impact EP careers.

Usually, EP pros fly under the media radar. As we say regularly, this job is not about you. We are big proponents of discretion on the part of the protectors.  This is not to say that an EP professional should not have a social media presence.  On the contrary, we are big believers that it has many professional benefits along with the personal benefits of staying connected with your friends and family.  We get to go to interesting places and help people do interesting things.

The protectors should never compromise the time and place predictability of our principals.  If an EP pro becomes a “celebrity” based on the people they work for, then people will be given a head start when that person shows up to do their advance work.  Discreet advance work is important in order to not tip-off outsiders to your principal’s presence. If you are a celebrity in your own right, then you will help people easily connect the dots.  Paparazzi may start following you because they know you will lead them to a potentially bigger payoff.

A few practical tips on EP and social media

Finally, let us leave you with a few simple guidelines that have proven to be useful – and practical – to follow.

  • Make sure the principal’s account settings don’t allow location sharing. You also need to think about the people around the principal – family, colleagues, entourage and the protection team itself.
  • Delay posts that could reveal time and place predictability until after the fact, not during or before the event. Again, it is important to educate the people around the principal, because they will be live, or posting in real time, thereby tipping off the location of the principal regardless of when the principal actually posts.
  • As a rule, the protection team and drivers should never post while they are in the process of protecting someone. You have a job to focus on. It’s not about you.  Take and post your “principal-free” location photos only after the principal has left town.  Everyone will already know that the principal was there because everyone else with a smartphone has already shared it with the world.

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