Post-Olympic Blues – How can we repair the industry’s tarnished image?

I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.

First of all, I’d like to thank all of you who took the time to comment on my first blog. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and I’m delighted that it provided food for thought.

While most of the country is feeling the post-Olympic blues, the security sector was perhaps unique in experiencing the doldrums before a single race had been run. The fallout from the G4S  problems is still very much with us and now we must turn our attention to repairing the industry’s damaged reputation.

There’s no denying that we must all learn some serious lessons from this unfortunate experience. However, I’m concerned – and even a little bit angry – about the kind of nonsense that is being spouted from senior government officials about using outsourced security in the public sector in future. Just two weeks ago the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said, ‘It does make you think again about the use of private companies in certain situations.’

The kind of ignorance shown in this comment does him, or us, no favours at all. This is a thriving business sector that employs over 380,000 professional licensed operatives, with tens of thousands of additional people employed in support, management, consulting, installation, technical and engineering roles – all contributing to a £5.3bn industry turnover.

The professionalism of this industry should not be in doubt and for the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, to state that ‘G4S were literally hiring people and expecting to deploy them three days later’ is beyond the pale. Had Mr Hammond done his homework and stuck to the facts, rather than simply constructing a media friendly soundbite, he would have known that this simply could not have happened.

For a start, the mandatory training required to obtain an SIA licence takes four days to complete. Since it first came into force in 2004 this licensing system has done a great deal to regulate who can and, just as importantly, who can’t, become a security operative. There are no shortcuts either and only SIA endorsed qualifications are valid for SIA licensing requirements.

This process also involves a stringent vetting procedure and every person has to undergo a full Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check, with some having to obtain additional security clearances. Employers have to comply with BS 7858, which sets the standard for the security screening of staff and states that individuals must have five years of traceable employment history. Any gaps must be accounted for and those that cannot comply with this or any other requirement won’t be able to obtain a license.

Criticising the private security industry is not yet an Olympic sport but if it were, Messrs Hunt and Hammond would be favourites for gold. They have failed to recognise the excellent job that thousands of professional security operatives do every day in both the public and private sectors – regularly performing acts of heroism that fall under the radar. Although there was an understandable focus on the Olympic Park, much of the immediate vicinity, including the nearby Westfield shopping centre, was successfully guarded by private security firms without reported incident.

The suggestion that the G4S incident highlights the inability of private security firms to rise to the challenge of servicing major events smacks of desperation and is being used to distract attention away from the real issue, which is that of how security services are procured. Even now there are some public contracts on the horizon where the scale of the project is so large that it means that only one or two companies have the financial and physical resources to undertake the work. A system whereby one company is left to service a contract like London 2012 is flawed and I believe that a syndicated arrangement should be implemented for any similar event in the future.

While the troops that stepped in have, quite rightly, been praised for their actions over the last few weeks, to pitch the private and military models against each other, as Mr Hammond has seen fit to do, makes little sense. The lean management model suits the vast majority of clients’ circumstances and even though private guarding firms have been slammed for their supposed inability to provide a contingency plan, the simple fact is that they can but it comes at a cost – just as bringing in the military did.

When all is said and done, we still are left with the issue of what to do about the industry’s tarnished image. My suggestion is for private security companies to join forces and approach the issue in a co-ordinated way, by identifying the key messages that need to be communicated. This would be best served under the auspices of a trade body to spearhead an education and PR based campaign that would dispel any myths and highlight the professionalism that we know exists among us. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Post-Olympic Blues – How can we repair the industry’s tarnished image?

  1. Hi Peter

    Another excellent blog containing wholly incisive comment.

    First of all, you’re absolutely right to state that now is the time to focus on boosting the private security sector’s image. I’m not just a little bit angry about the comments made by senior politicians in the pre-Olympic Games and post-Games periods. Their words have infuriated me.

    Sadly, too many of today’s political figures live for the media-friendly soundbites and cheap rhetoric designed solely, it would appear, to score points over their colleagues in the House.

    Politics isn’t necessarily all about policy any more. Rather, the focus is on how much favour can be garnered with the electorate by way of national media attention – be it written or televisual.

    It would appear General Election victories are determined by image over substance… but I digress.

    Back on message, for some strange reason unbeknown to myself (and, I would argue, many others in the security world) the only kind of publicity our fabulous sector merits at a national level is negative.

    Why are the major news channels not in attendance at events such as the BSIA’s Annual Luncheon or the Security Excellence Awards to learn of the acts of heroism carried out by SIA-licensed security officers on a regular basis? Acts of heroism, by the way, that often save lives!

    As we discussed and debated at IFSEC International with some of your sector colleagues, now’s the time to revisit the way in which security is procured and managed across the piece.

  2. Hi Peter/Brian,

    Brian, what will it take to get the main news channels to actually attend the BSIA Annual Luncheon and Security Excellence Awards? Have we exhausted all possibilities? Or is it simply that good news stories about the private security sector and the heroism of its members just doesn’t resonate with the wider media? It may not be too late to get them there for this year’s Security Excellence Awards. Even the media might get tired of ‘knocking’ our industry, and perhaps a smart main channel journalist or researcher might understand the mileage and opportunity in getting a ‘scoop’ on security industry good news and heroics?

    Mike Bluestone

    • Hi Mike/Peter

      We are looking into this right now in relation to the Global Security Summit at Olympia and the Security Excellence Awards (which follow a week later at the Hilton Hotel, Park Lane on Wednesday 17 October).

      There are plenty of ‘good news’ stories around at the moment in the wake of London 2012 (among them the tremendous success enjoyed by the Cross-sector Safety and Security Communications project energised by Sir David Veness and Don Randall), and we must capitalise on them in both the short and medium terms.

      You would have thought security officers saving peoples’ lives might be newsworthy, and I know the BSIA Comms Team has been proactive in attempting to engage the national media with the Security Personnel of the Year Awards for a number of years now.

      All I can is that we’ll keep on trying to leverage some opportunities.

  3. Hi Peter,

    Instead of grandstanding and taking easy picks against politicans, how about showing some contrition as to the serious damage caused by this latest debacle.So another working party of the great and good and an invite to another over the top award function is the way forward is it. Not one of these bodies has an effective PR strategy in place to not only promote but educate people to revise their thinking of this industry.

    Your defence of the SIA with its training and licensing policies as some kind of panacea is frankly overplayed and lacks creedence, and for all the gestures of the SIA, this industry has not moved on,we have just seen the cracks papered over.

    All this clever hindsight, where were the voices of dissent when the whole contract was awarded to G4S instead of smaller portions of the contract, I don’t recall vewing your name in this regard.

    So if you are serious in formulating a new appraoch then stop using the old chestnuts, it does your argument no favours whatsoever and look to engaging others whose working life centres around the nuts and bolts of the industry the very same heroes you mention.

  4. Barry

    Thanks for commenting on my blog.

    When I started this blog I hoped that it could provide a vehicle for frank discussion amongst colleagues in the industry and I am pleased that your comment shows this is the case.

    Of course the industry must take serious lessons from the incident but I would say again that many of the comments questioning the future role of outsourced security in the public sector are misguided. In fact, I believe such comments could seriously damage our industry – leaving us, as security professionals, to pick up the pieces.

    I am in no way excusing the actions of G4S; nor am I dumping all blame on politicians alone. I agree that industry bodies could do more to promote the crucial role that the security industry plays in the UK and, again, I am neither praising nor condemning the SIA – just stating the facts as I see them.

    Peter

  5. Peter,

    I wish I could see some evidence of the industry taking this onboard, but as in the past too many spats berween various bodies have always led to a fragmented approach and stance, oh well ever the optimist

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