UK private security is hamstrung by something that’s hardly ever acknowledged, which makes it all the more unlikely that it’ll be addressed, writes Mark Rowe.
It was only a passing remark, but reminded me about the thing – the attitude of mind, the corporate function – that holds back the security sector from talking about the good work it does, and by implication makes private security less in the public eye, and less able to attract anyone to work for it. In a word, public relations (PR).
I was interviewing someone who mentioned a well-known shopping centre chain, that incidentally does much good security work. But I was not to say anything about it, because permission would have to be sought, it would have to go through France, it would take a month …. left unsaid was the further remark, it’s not worth it.
It reminded me of a story I told when I appeared on Prof Martin Gill’s OSPAs thought leadership webinar in December 2021 (click here for digest or to listen) about an award for bravery to a hotel security officer who locked down in the vicinity of the London Bridge-Borough Market marauding terrorist attack of June 2017; the hotel’s PR person contacted the award organiser from an industry body, and insisted that the award be given no publicity. The organiser, presumably (I didn’t ask) to spare the hotel security people any (further) trouble – lesser things get people the sack – agreed.
Pause to consider the PR person and the security officer. Far from welcoming the good publicity of the good deed done to keep hotel guests and staff safe, the PR person (whose idea of difficulty is to see that the croissant shelf in the supermarket is empty) went to some trouble to squash the story. What does it tell the officer? That the employer gives no credit to the deed, even though anyone looking at a map can see that the hotel was near the terror incident.
That’s not to tar all PRs as ignorant and stupid; you can find stupidity in any occupation. We can separate the harm done to security management into two. First, that good work is routinely not publicised, even though a little effort can result in an outpouring of goodwill to the person who does an outstanding deed – whether industry sector awards such as Professional Security Magazine’s own for women, or ACS Pacesetters’ for security officers, to name only two, or the Sheriffs’ award for bravery (for anyone, whether a member of the public or in uniform) by the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals; or a medal for bravery from the Royal Humane Society (click here for recent case).
Second, whether in the name of corporate confidentiality or for fear that terrorists or other criminals might use the learning, good practice is not collected and shared. I can think of one consultant and trainer in the field of event security and crowd control who spoke of work with household names, that would not allow publication, not even academically. In other words, whatever their best practice or research, it stays with them. You could argue that they can share privately, or quietly among neighbours or other connections; except, who’s to say who can benefit from a piece of good practice.
The irony is that keeping quiet about a site or organisation’s security isn’t even good security, necessarily, according to official advice from the former CPNI, now the NPSA (National Protective Security Authority): see their idea of ‘security minded communications‘. Briefly; you can promote that you do security, to reassure the law-abiding public (who aren’t thick; when they see news of a terror attack, they wonder if other places are safe to visit) and to place doubt in the minds of ‘hostiles’, whether potential terrorists or pick-pockets (who consume media the same as the law-abiding).
The enemy, then, is ignorance, not even necessarily solely among the PR professionals, but the PRs’s bosses, who have never heard of the NPSA or ‘security minded communications’; and so often, such bosses are know-alls and lay down the law about what PR to do; and the PR person who wants a quiet life does as they’re told. In a recession, such as the one the UK is on the brink of, PRs are among the first to get the heave-ho, leaving bosses to do their own PR or make some non-specialist even more ignorant do it. Or, a consultant is hired, and even if they ‘get’ the human interest story of a good deed by a security person, or ‘security minded communications’, they don’t rock the boat, to keep the work, because the client is always right.
There’s no easy answer, then, to getting private security the good PR it’s due, but a first step would be to acknowledge that a problem exists: lack of publicity (and less publicity than more glamorous functions) leaves a security department feeling permanently unappreciated, and places it at a disadvantage, when scrabbling for internal budget.