When working with high profile or high net worth clients, executive protection professionals must accept that the media simply come with the territory. A clear understanding of how the media operate to access the principal is key to ensuring the principal’s well-being and privacy.
To treat everyone involved with the press the same fails to account for how various media outlets work, what their aims are, which methods they’re willing to employ, and their agendas. An accredited reporter from a mainstream outlet requesting an interview with the principal through official channels is one thing. Paparazzi doing all they can to bypass security and snap a shot – no matter how this affects the client’s image or safety – is another.
Before we dig into some ideas on planning, protocols, and procedures, let’s be sure to differentiate how we think about the media, which can be split into at least five categories.
1. The mainstream media (including the New York Times, Washington Post, the BBC, CNN, and many others) are generally large, influential, and active worldwide. While they do have their own tricks of the trade to get information on or from the principal, we can generally expect their approach to be above-board – and above planting a bug.
2. “Partisan” or “fringe” media outlets are also driven by their need for information about the principal. However, their editorial slant is more obvious and tends to represent certain views than report information neutrally. Sometimes the views fringe journalists espouse match those of the principal, and the exposure might be beneficial to the principal’s image. Other times, not. Since partisan agendas can result in fabricated rumors about the principal that can be more impactful than facts, their readership should not be underestimated.
3. Gossip media rely on paparazzi pictures, rumor mongering, and clickable headlines to sustain their business. Here, accuracy and honorable journalistic standards matter little: these writers and photographers tend to be oriented toward revenue, page views and clicks rather than any Pulitzer Prize aspirations. We can consequently expect them to intrude on a client’s privacy by any means necessary —from greasing palms, to planting bugs and shooting long-range pictures in any way possible.
4. Freelance or independent media includes bloggers and journalists who are not affiliated with any of the aforementioned groups but operate independently and then sell the information to them. Some may resort to shady or dangerous tactics. Whether their aim is money or revealing information they consider valuable or important, they can be considered somewhat “rogue” elements who may break accepted standards to get what they want.
5. Anyone with a smartphone, which means just about everyone. Let’s not forget that we’re living in an extremely connected world in which everyone is a journalist – or can become one very quickly. Practically all media, from the most mainstream to the furthest fringe, have open-door policies that make it simple to submit stories and pictures in the form of anonymous tips via encrypted apps such as WhatsApp and Signal. And as we’ve pointed out in a previous blog on social media and executive protection, apps like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter make it even simpler for millions of people to snap a shot that can go viral in minutes.
While these categories are helpful, they are by no means absolute. To assume that all members of the mainstream media will always operate “cleanly” or that paparazzi will always use “dirty” tricks is wrong. Letting your guard down around certain reporters or being needlessly defensive or aggressive with others may lead to unintended and problematic consequences.
Reputable media sources may have some less-reputable staff. Some independent journalists have political or personal axes to grind, others don’t. Even a positive, approved interview with a major newspaper may be picked up by other outlets who put their own spin on the information. Remember that information does not exist in a vacuum and that anything (anything!) can go viral in moments. A single embarrassing picture may be re-blogged or shared on Twitter thousands of times. In fact, information may first pop up on social media before being acquired and spread by “proper” media outlets.
They say that good news travels fast. Well, so does bad news. Our point is that information spreads – sometimes very quickly. While it is impossible to control how far and the manner in which it will do so, security professionals should focus on making sure that no information leaks, and that whatever does leak will be okay with the client. We do this by thinking through our interactions with the media ahead of time and by being prepared to mitigate foreseeable risks.
Preparations, protocols, and procedures for executive protection professionals dealing with the media
Be prepared: When the day begins protection professionals, the principal, and everyone else in his/her entourage should have a clear idea of what to expect in terms of media encounters. Based on these expectations, we then need to make plans to deal with possible upcoming interactions, both the expected and the unexpected, and what to do whether things go well or not. Advances should always include thinking about where it is likely to run into the media, where pictures might be taken from, and how the media might attempt to move past security measures.
Know your principal and the particular risks they may face: A high-profile client who regularly engages with the media, or even thrives in a symbiotic relationship with the media, will in all likelihood be given a lot more attention than those known to maintain their privacy. However, the latter may also be confronted with more dedicated scoop-hunters who are desperate to glean any bit of info about the principal. If the principal is a celebrity, do they have an album or movie coming out, or is it a “quiet” period? Buzz may vary depending on the current career status. Those protecting female clients need to think about upskirt or cleavage shots taken by that kind of photographer. Is the principal known to be aggressive towards the press? If so, protective agents will have to be prepared to protect them from themselves, too.
Know which media you’re dealing with: Who is likely to go after the principal? How many? How do they generally operate? What is their outlet’s reputation? Are they known for going to extreme lengths to get what they want? What locations have they used in the past and may use again? What resources are at their disposal? Can they use drones, helicopters, hacking? How many vehicles do they have? Have they chatted with the neighbors or the staff? We’ve mentioned that the media generally don’t have a personal grudge, but sometimes they do. If so, special precautions should be taken. We can’t know everything, but we can make sure that the knowable becomes part of our preparations.
Understand and manage the media: The media are what they are. To try and ignore them is to disregard the way society works and the profession’s goals. Whether the principal wants to engage with the media or not, the media will be there. The majority of them don’t have a personal grudge towards the client or towards protective staff. They do their job, we do ours. It is completely possible to leverage media presence into something positive. We can’t make the media disappear, but we can sometimes help shape the narrative by scripting how and when an encounter will take place. When relevant and appropriate, protective professionals should work with client PR teams to select safe locations where the media can snapshots and engage with the principal. In so doing, we reduce the likelihood of an unwanted intrusion earlier or later that day, we give the reporters what they want (within reason), we help boost the client’s image, and we remain in control the whole time.
Leverage local resources: Depending on the jurisdiction, law enforcement officers are generally quite good at enforcing private property rules and making sure unwanted reporters don’t wander around places they shouldn’t be. Security staff should be aware of the local laws wherever they are and be ready to use them to their advantage. Other security officers (such as hotel or venue security staff) who aren’t necessarily part of the protective team or operation should be relied on, too. There is no reason to needlessly share information with them about the principal, but good cooperation with them can provide a broader perspective of the situation. The same is true of the principal’s own team, from PR to management. We all rely on information. We should have as much as we can to do our job, and provide others with enough to do theirs.
Be discrete: Since the media feed on information, security professionals must carefully manage and safeguard whatever information they might have about the principal. Never use the principal’s name when booking a hotel, restaurant, or any other place that requires a reservation. Keep a tight lid on the principal’s schedule, not saying a word about anything to anyone unless pre-approved. Shred documents. Keep an eye on social media. Contacting others about our principals’ movements should be done without sacrificing their privacy. Consider using decoys if the principal’s next location has been staked out by reporters—even a few seconds can be enough to make a safe exit.
Stay composed and keep your eye on the big picture: We’ve all seen those videos of security pros being way too rough with paparazzi and journalists in high-stress situations. While protective assertiveness is always warranted, keep in mind that getting physical in any way is an option of last resort, not a means of dissuasion or intimidation. Protective staff should not engage in needless banter, trash talk, or raise their voices. Their every word is potential fodder for headlines later that day. We needn’t be the lion swatting at the fly: let insults fly by unanswered and remember that what we do reflects on the client. TMZ would have no qualms about running a piece that discusses how a celebrity’s security staff misbehaved. The principal’s name and reputation are inherently attached to how we carry ourselves. After all, they hired us and will be seen with us. We must consider ourselves another potential way for journalists to get to the principal and act accordingly.
OK, we’ve just dedicated a whole blog to paparazzi and other media. Of course, this is important, but it’s even more important not to lose sight of the larger protective picture. Some paparazzi are so aggressive and tricky that they are downright irksome. This can get one’s competitive juices flowing to the point where focus on one (extremely pesky) potential threat eclipses our awareness of other even greater threats. Let’s remember that it’s our job to assess the entirety of potential threats as objectively, comprehensively, and constantly as we can. Letting our emotions run away with us does no good for anyone.