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Correcting misconceptions on television news

When commentators wrongly criticise a company on television, the knee jerk reaction can be to demand a retraction or threaten legal action but when a former CIA director made some untrue comments about ISS on Fox News, the Copenhagen-headquartered company decided that a softer approach  was appropriate.

James Woolsey, who led the CIA for two years, was being interviewed after a Russian airliner crashed 23 minutes after taking off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

It was brought down by a bomb, allegedly planted on the jet by an Egypt-based baggage handler. Woolsey, who is widely regarded as an expert on global security, told Fox News that it was only a matter of time before a similar crash could happen in the United States, particularly as some airports were now using foreign companies, such as ISS, to handle luggage.

To suggest our staff were not vetted was totally untrue

ISS, one of the world’s leading facilities services companies, employing more than 500,000 people across 77 countries, was the only foreign company named by Woolsey, who further implied that the group did not adequately vet those it employed.

Manuel Vigilius, global media relations manager based in Copenhagen, was enjoying a ‘few glasses of red on a Friday evening’ when he was contacted by the legal function of ISS’ US business, which had been alerted to the interview by an employee.

‘We learned within 24 hours of the comments being aired,’ he explains. ‘We have global media surveillance set up, but our US business is relatively small, in an ISS context, employing just 15,240 people, or three per cent of all employees.’

Woolsey had claimed that ISS had baggage handling contracts with several American airports, specifically naming four or five, suggesting it hired immigrants on agricultural visas and did not carry out appropriate security checks. The airport names were correct, but ISS in fact only handled luggage airside at Denver Airport in Colorado.

‘To suggest our staff were not vetted was totally untrue,’ adds Vigilius. ‘We have procedures in place. Nobody is allowed to handle anything that goes on a plane without a full security check. We have the same security procedures whether the employee is a US citizen or an immigrant.’

Woolsey had been fed information which was ‘half true [the names and numbers of airports] and half lies [the services it offered]’, says Vigilius. He also repeated an inaccurate rumour that ISS had won the airport contracts despite charging considerably more than its competitors.

Rather than immediately reacting ‘and stirring the flame’, Vigilius and his team opted to find out whether the allegations had spread via social media.

‘The show is available online, and can be tweeted and shared, so we put our global social media agency on the case,’ he explains. ‘We also needed somebody on the ground, so we quickly decided that we needed to liaise with a local PR agency, one that was well-connected in Washington, in case this issue exploded and turned into a political matter.’

Further investigations revealed that Woolsey was repeating comments made by conservative radio show host Lisa Benson, who specialises in national security matters, and whose biography claims she is ‘creating a unique platform for the purpose safeguarding the American people, and its closest Middle East ally, Israel, from terrorist infiltration and terrorist attack’.

‘She may be radical but she has some influence,’ explains Vigilius. ‘We didn’t want to gratify her false claims by responding, but also because we could see from past radio shows that doing so would only generate more publicity.’

You can easily make defensive statements that appear only to be concerned about a company’s reputation, but our main concern is our customers and our employees, and we wanted to make sure that the passengers who use our airports feel safe while our employees felt protected and defended

Benson has been a vocal critic of ISS for some time, suggesting that it has a corrupt collaboration with the airport authorities, winning contracts ahead of competitors despite charging higher fees. At a time when concerns about airport security were high, ISS had to stop Fox News from airing the interview again.

‘[Woolsey] is not a nobody. He is a former CIA director, and a heavyweight operator,’ says Vigilius. ‘He is critical of the Obama administration, which he claims is too lenient when it comes to airport security.’

It was clear that ISS was being used as a pawn by Woolsey and Benson to push their agendas. The local PR agency contacted Fox News on behalf of ISS, but the Danish company was clear that it did not want a statement to be read out on air. The core message of the letter was ISS’ concern for its passengers.

‘You can easily make defensive statements that appear only to be concerned about a company’s reputation, but our main concern is our customers and our employees, and we wanted to make sure that the passengers who use our airports feel safe while our employees felt protected and defended. They are not ‘suspicious immigrants’ on dubious visas.’

To ensure that there were no misunderstandings, ISS also contacted its US operations and ran through the local vetting procedures to make absolutely certain that they adhered to its standards.

However, the local PR agency cautioned against contacting Woolsey directly. ‘I thought we should, to convince him of the true facts, and to stop him from repeating the false claims in other media,’ recalls Vigilius, ‘but the advice was to keep a close eye on what he said in the coming days, and not to react on the basis of one interview. They told us to go the source of distribution.’

ISS was also keen not to wait for any supportive statement from the American airport authorities or the Transport Security Administration, a department of Homeland Security.

‘The airport authorities had been under attack in recent months, and taken a lot of flak from people keen to criticise security. It was our responsibility to defend our operations.’

In the event, it took more than two weeks for any formal response or message of support from the airport authority with regards to the allegations.

‘At that point, nobody remembered them and I fear that, although they meant well, the only thing their response achieved was to give them a new lease of life,’ comments Vigilius. But the letter had its desired effect.

‘Fox News only aired the part of Woolsey’s interview when ISS is mentioned once, maybe twice, and has since aired a shortened version. That is probably due partly to luck and partly to our speed of response,’ he adds.

Lisa Benson, however, has continued to mention ISS but ‘the social media response, how much it is shared, is very limited’.

None of America’s more widely respected publications, such as The Washington Post and New York Times, have followed up.

‘We wondered if a Danish newspaper might repeat the claims, but they haven’t,’ says Vigilius. ‘And we also haven’t had any response from our shareholders. I think that may be partly due to the perception, in a European context, that the Fox News agenda is very opinionated.’