In the face of a potential economic downturn in the West, corporations are increasingly exploring emerging markets in the search for new sources of business.

The importance of these new markets, notably in Africa, the Middle East, South America, Asia and sometimes eastern Europe, has highlighted problems with the delivery of executive protection. It seems that businesses are not getting what they need.

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Automatic targets

Obviously when travelling somewhere such as Iraq or Afghanistan, where business people stand out and are automatically targets, executives need heavily armed protection, probably from people who have combat experience.

But a permissive region – one which, while potentially unstable, maintains the rule of law and is not experiencing open hostilities – poses a very different challenge.

In a country such as Pakistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, the dangers are very different to those posed in Baghdad or Kabul.

The main dangers to corporate representatives are from opportunist crime and the reputational risk encountered when executives wander into the wrong part of town or have papers or their personal possessions stolen. In these countries, an aggressive and overt level of protection does not usually play well.

Widened responsibilities

Protecting corporate reputations by protecting intelligence-carrying employees is no longer just the preserve of CEOs.

Uncontrolled incidents involving foul play, including data theft, can spotlight a company’s vulnerability and cost millions in public perception and reputation.

In February 2008, the Ponemon Research Institute concluded (from studying 21 businesses in the UK which experienced a data breach) that 36% of their reported costs were due to lost business, with an abnormal customer churn rate (higher than average) of 2.5 % after a breach.

The report also cited the cost of a data breach for financial services organisations as approximately £55 ($108) for each record compromised. Although executive protection cannot prevent online data breaches, it can help to prevent a straightforward theft.

Of course, in the oil, mining and parts of the banking industry, conducting business in emerging markets or unfamiliar countries is not new. Many executives have been travelling to these areas for years without additional protection.

Those who have travelled widely in emerging markets may also feel that they do not need an aggressive show of force or a heavy-handed bodyguard on their tail.

Nevertheless, corporations are increasingly aware of their duty of care to their employees and the importance of being able to do business without worrying about supposedly peripheral issues.

Striking a balance

So, how best to strike the right balance in a country where the law still operates but a Western-looking business person may appear vulnerable?

Whether it is Islamabad or Berlin, there is a new approach to executive protection, which insists that the operatives are part of the business team.

It is no longer about the show of force, it is about being discreet, blending in and having the resourcefulness to deal with a situation calmly, and hopefully before it arises.

This form of executive protection is about allowing the business person to concentrate on his or her work, not on how they are going to get to the meeting.

It is about making sure they arrive able to do their job and are not, at the very least, manhandled by bodyguards past a baying mob – as EMI chairman Guy Hands was in February after announcing plans to lay off up to one-third of the record company’s employees.

It means having a bespoke team of people who already know where the hotspots are likely to be, and avoiding them rather than shooting their way out of a roadblock on the way to a board meeting.

Above all, it is about a team doing their research and being able to brief in advance and rehearse a plan – be that meeting one person at an airport or organising a team that travels with management.

It is about having people on the ground rather than just taking the Foreign Office line. And sometimes it is about saying “don’t go”.

Bespoke service

Between the hardcore, overt types and the traditional, one-dimensional bodyguard, there is space for an intelligent, bespoke service.

Companies are no longer impressed with the one-size-fits-all approach; nor will they put up with a lack of business understanding.

A changing industry

Executive protection is no longer about reactive heavies in dark sunglasses protecting heads of state. Corporate businesses are looking for operatives who are lower profile – those who can avoid conflict and become a resourceful and trusted member of the team.

This is an intelligent new approach to protection; perhaps demanding military skills but combined with a personable, approachable manner.

Brian Adcock is managing director of Matrix Executive Protection.