Hostage to fortune Article icon


Britain issued a collective sigh of relief when Paul and Rachel Chandler were released unharmed in November after being held hostage for more than a year by Somalian pirates.

Yet for every kidnapping that hits the headlines, hundreds go unreported. 'It doesn't appear on the balance sheets of companies but there are at least 20,000 reported incidents a year worldwide and probably a lot more,' says Gerald Moor, chief executive of business risk and intelligence company The Inkerman Group.

There are also more kidnaps of Britons than commonly thought. In 2006, for example, as many as 30 British people were held hostage around the world, according to Tim Grey, founder of The Millbrook Partnership, a London-based consultancy specialising in the management of critical issues.

Whether in Somalia, war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan or drug badlands like Colombia and Mexico, kidnapping of people employed by Western companies is increasingly occurring as an unwanted consequence of globalisation.

Because communications is at the centre of kidnap situations - if no-one knows they are being held, then no ransom can be demanded - this is a growing issue for communicators, with kidnaps potentially devastating to carefully-nurtured corporate images.

Brand protection

'What we're discussing here is brand protection,' says Moor. 'It doesn't matter who has been kidnapped. Whether it's someone way down the food chain or higher up you're still talking about protecting the brand of the company.'

kidnap crisis can also be a situation that defines an organisation, according to Tim Johnson, chief operating officer at specialist reputation strategy and management consultancy Regester Larkin.

'How a company deals with these challenges will send a message to all its audiences about what sort of company it is,' he says.

Nonetheless, most corporate communicators have never had to deal with kidnaps and Moor says a lot of FTSE350 companies don't prepare properly.

Unsurprisingly, the specialist agencies believe that handling the key communications is best left to them and most in-house communicators could probably do without the stress.

States Grey: 'Hostage taking is a particularly dark, criminal act that is designed to terrorise and disrupt people into submission. The best thing specialist advisors can do is to shoulder the weight so that the client can maintain focus on running their business.'

'This is pretty hard stuff,' warns another specialist. 'You're sitting in your office when a video arrives of someone pleading for their life.'

Moor says kidnap communications require a set of negotiators and a professional firm of defensive PR agents.

'This is not something an in-house communications team can deal with,' he says. 'Kidnap situations are way beyond most corporate crises. You're fighting for someone's life.

'I don't know of any company with the in-house capability to handle a kidnap scenario but you do need to have someone within the communications function with the ability to pick up the phone to the right people.'

Ultimate crisis planning

Corporate communications teams also need to be involved in planning for potential kidnaps, which Moor believes should be covered in companies' crisis and risk management preparation.

'It's all about what companies are doing in anticipation,' he states. 'You have to brief people. People in the organisation who travel have to be able to do their jobs without being scared to death.'

The Inkerman Group advises companies to set up a crisis management team in advance and go through all the possible kidnap scenarios, along with other risks such as contamination and extortion.

It says holding statements should be prepared in advance, while firms should also have kidnaps on their corporate risk matrices, test their communications against such events and hold full kidnap scenario rehearsals.

The consultancy holds crisis management training sessions for clients, brings in agencies to advise on defensive PR strategies and encourages close liaison between crisis management planning and finance and human resources departments so that they can act as a tight unit in a kidnapping situation.

It also provides people who travel with text messages about danger spots - the firm even did this for overseas executives visiting London during the recent student protests - and a BlackBerry panic button app.

This can be programmed to alert their employer if they have not cancelled the instruction within a set time of a planned trip or meeting, even if the Blackberry is confiscated, crushed or thrown in the sea.

In actual kidnaps, 24-hour operations rooms should be set up and a number of decisions worked through.

'No kidnap is the same, although there are in some cases discernible patterns,' says Grey. 'Most are for money, but the very complex are those where there is a clear and determined political objective.

'These are the most challenging to resolve and often mean the involvement of more than one government. If the kidnap is for money then it's a matter for the insurers, the relatives and the company board.

'It's entirely different and it changes the way you manage the negotiation as well as the wider communication, which is always about trying to preserve the safety of the hostages.'

One crucial decision is whether to publicise kidnappings. Patrick Toyne Sewell, corporate affairs director at security group G4S, which deals with at least one armed robbery a day in one of its worldwide operations, says the company has a policy of not communicating at all with the media  at any stage of kidnap situations.

'The last thing you want is to give anything away to the bad guys,' he says. 'You just don't want to destabilise the process.'

Similarly, Duncan Gallagher, an associate director in the issues and crisis team at public relations agency Hill & Knowlton, declined to offer any advice on kidnap communications.

'It is not timely for us to comment on this,' he said. 'It is just not appropriate for us at the moment.'

Other experts believe that whether or not to communicate depends very much on the situation and the safety of the people concerned.

'Communications is only one part of managing a kidnap situation,' says Johnson. 'The sole goal of managing such a kidnap situation is the safe return of the person who has been kidnapped.

'To secure this, there are important corporate policy discussions to be had and careful high-level conversations will be needed with relevant governments and other national and international bodies.

'The conversations quite clearly must happen behind closed doors. It is as times like this when transparency is not just unwelcome it is positively dangerous.'

Transparency is dangerous

In terms of how much of the kidnap to disclose, experts say the big decisions are nearly always taken out of companies' hands and made by security advisers on the basis of whether an external profile helps or hinders the situation.

The four-month kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnson in 2007 by a Palestinian group in Gaza City, for example, involved a campaigning approach for his release, while the Chandlers' kidnap in the Gulf of Aden was subject to a super-injunction blanking out coverage altogether.

Then there's who should be communicated to, who faces the media and what is said. Experts say that in all three considerations the families of people who've been kidnapped must come first, with communicators playing a part in helping them through potentially intense interest media or how to manage the nightmare scenario of a kidnap ending in death.

This is obviously highly sensitive and emotional territory with families often feeling that enough is not being done to free loved ones and sometimes taking unhelpful action.

In one case, kidnappers watched a TV interview of a family member giving an interview outside the family home and concluded that it was a large wealthy residence and that the kidnappers should hold out for more money.

'Kidnappers have the same technology as the rest of us' says Grey. 'They scan the media all the time and pay close attention to what is said and by whom.

'Often they assume incorrectly that everything in the media is carefully placed as a negotiating tactic.  This is why discipline is so critical. The wrong message or wrong impression can and sometimes does deliver adverse reactions.'

One way around this is to give selective off-the-record briefings, with Grey believing that most journalists are fundamentally sensible people who will understand and adhere to parameters as long as there is a relationship of trust.

Internal communications is vital

Kevin Tasker, partner at The Centre for Crisis Psychology, a Skipton, North Yorkshire-based consultancy that provides trauma recovery support in a range of crisis scenarios, says there's also a vital job to be done in internal communications.

'One of the main things a kidnap causes throughout a company is fear,' he says. 'These things really frighten people and that's simply because kidnap is not like an ordinary traumatic situation where there is a start, a middle and an end that's over and done with in a few months.

'These things can go on for months and years without people ever seeing outcomes, which just intensifies the fear that everyone connected with them is feeling. It becomes a repetitive trauma.

'It's imperative that managers understand the seriousness of the situation and how colleagues are feeling about it, bearing in mind that some colleagues will handle the situation very well and others will need a lot of support.'

Who should do the communicating? 'Make sure that the top people in your company are involved and that they get some media training,' advises Moor.

'The people chosen should be suitably senior but not necessarily the chief executive, Take a lesson from the police. It is never the chief constable. It gives you one more level of deniability.

As to what should the communications themselves should say, experts prefer short, targeted messages.

'The content tends to be based around cooperation, for example stressing that you are working hard with authorities to secure release,' says Tim Johnson.

'The way in which this message is delivered, though, is key. The tone and sense of care deployed from the messenger is critical and makes all the difference.'

Nonetheless, there are some strategic decisions. 'Do you tell people that the CEO has been kidnapped or do you just say he is on an extended holiday or away ill?' asks Moor, advising that the individual concerned should be made aware of this policy in advance as part of crisis planning.

Internally, the 'need to know' approach is also a good yardstick. 'Our approach is that people do not need to know everything,' says Tasker.

'It's important that the families know as much as possible but there's some information that colleagues do not need to know.'

He also stresses that the communicator's job doesn't stop when people are released. 'It's important for colleagues to understand that they're going to be different people,' he says.

'They're not going to be the same that they were before because their view of the world and of risk is going to be very, very different. The world becomes a lot more dangerous to them.'

Be prepared

Gerald Moor, chief executive of The Inkerman Group, advises business travellers to take photocopies of their passport and details of who to call in an emergency on trips.

'Leave some of your DNA around wherever you are if you are taken' he adds. 'Spit somewhere, smear some sweat on the sides of a room or pee in the corner, because we will come and find it.

'And always say you have money. If you don't have any money you are dead because you are an encumbrance and you have seen them.'

The silent approach

Secrecy is paramount when it comes to planning for kidnaps at security company G4S. The group appointed Simon Baker director of crisis management in August, with independent website reporting that he would focus 'on the further development of G4S's kidnap for ransom, extortion and crisis management planning and response practice'.

According to G4S's press release, this team provides governments, international corporations and private individuals around the world with abduction, kidnap for ransom and extortion prevention and training and response services.

However, added this warning: 'Due to the sensitive nature of Simon Baker's new role, we are unable to publish his photograph.'