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Arjan Keshavarz
May 22 2024

Security experts gathered in Geneva for the inaugural Responsible Security Forum, hosted by the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA), to address the challenges facing the private security industry. The forum highlighted significant reputational risks and a lack of reputation management expertise within the industry, despite the rising demand for security services. In this article, Arjan Keshavarz, Director of Communication and Strategy at Teneo in London, discusses the growing importance of effective communication strategies for private security firms as businesses increasingly prioritize transparency and ethical practices. He emphasizes that the industry must proactively manage its reputation and educate diverse audiences to maintain credibility and thrive in the modern business environment.



Last December, security experts gathered in Geneva to discuss how to tackle the challenges facing the private security industry. The inaugural Responsible Security Forum, hosted by the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA), was a chance for the industry to take a hard look at its operating environment and how to maintain high standards in the face of issues ranging from corruption to misuse of force, and the shadow cast by unethical organisations. In attendance were security companies, UK Government, academics, lawyers, auditors and extractive industries.

As a corporate communications adviser who previously spent 10 years working in private security, two things stood out for me: first was a universal recognition that the industry faces major reputational risk. Second was an absence of reputation management expertise. To my knowledge, I was the only communications adviser there.

Demand for security services is rising at a time when businesses in all sectors are increasingly exposed to reputational risk. Trends around transparency and people-oriented values mean that ethical agendas are becoming as central to business success as financial performance, and indeed are becoming as much a subject of concern for investors as they are for employees, customers and government. The role of social media in amplifying attacks on reputation has become obvious, but we are now in an era in which those platforms host staggering levels of misinformation as well as targeted disinformation, all while increasingly sophisticated algorithms shield people from arguments that challenge their first instincts. Meanwhile governments across the world are playing to the galleries of their core constituents, to an extent where nuance seems consigned to the past and policy often feels driven by the public mood.

Where, then, does this leave private security? It should be no surprise that scepticism hangs over an industry that thrives where government and the rule of law are fragile. Add a paucity of regulation and difficulties in enforcing standards across the board, and it’s hard to see that scepticism shifting without a concerted effort to educate a wide range of audiences. In a world where the court of public opinion can decide a company’s licence to operate, the uphill march must begin if security providers working in complex parts of the world are to survive the modern business environment. 

Here’s why private security companies should start getting serious about communications.

A communications strategy isn’t about PR stunts

Private security is dominated by hard-nosed veterans of the military, police and intelligence services. As a former serviceman myself, I’m only too aware that the words ‘public relations’ can evoke fluffy ideas like building a social media profile, pulling cheesy stunts, and generally jumping up and down and trumpeting your exploits. And then there’s that dreaded word: spin. You can just imagine how ugly it would look if a company accused of a human rights violation was reported as ‘hiring a spin doctor’ to flip the story.

I’m not suggesting fluff, and good communication is a world away from spin. There can be merit for a private security company in pursuing a proactive communications campaign, and for larger, better-known firms that don’t have the option of avoiding the spotlight, their reputation needs to be managed actively. But a communications strategy isn’t a luxury item that companies need only consider when they reach a certain size – in an industry as poorly understood as security, even a low profile needs to be managed through careful planning. Besides media, the way a company engages with governments, clients, investors, partners, local communities and its own employees all must hang together in a coherent strategy that supports the business’s long-term objectives and resonates with those stakeholders, whose individual priorities differ. And what does a CEO do the day something goes wrong, and the spotlight is on the company whether they like it or not? Managing all this requires dedicated time, effort and expertise.

If responsible providers don’t set the narrative, others will

In any industry, bad actors create reputational risk for the whole. Most security companies involved in what could be considered ‘interesting work’ tend to keep a low profile, their credentials muted by technical, self-effacing language that deflects interest owing to the combined modesty and caution of an industry in which the aforementioned veterans have set the norms. This is understandable, but the negative result is twofold: 

First, organisations that appear more interesting fill the vacuum – and ‘interesting’ in the world of private security can be assumed to mean whoever best conforms to the mercenary stereotype. The name on everyone’s lips right now is Wagner Group, the Russian organisation proscribed by the UK Government as terrorists, and whose late owner Yevgeny Prigozhin was described by journalists as a warlord. A gift to the media, which has told a story of a private armed group running amok in multiple countries, Wagner is the lightning rod for policymakers and others whose starting position on private armed security swings between mistrust and contempt.

Second, there is no reputational capital in the bank when things go wrong. The 2007 catastrophe at Nisour Square in Baghdad, when a Blackwater team killed 17 unarmed people, wasn’t the only reason the company lost its licence to operate. Trust between the company and its stakeholders – not least the Iraqi people and their government – had eroded over time to the point that an incident even half as bad as Nisour Square would have spelled the end. Not only that, but ‘Blackwater’ had become a byword for any Western security contractor that was there enabling the country’s rebuild, and the image of gun-toting cowboys roaming the streets with impunity has since endured in the public debate around the industry.

The leaders of private security companies may not feel comfortable talking openly about their work, and certainly some aspects call for discretion. But responsible providers must engage with audiences who otherwise will pile on the moment the industry has a bad day. At the very least, individual companies will serve themselves well to do this. Far more powerful would be a collective voice. For an industry that is so poorly understood, responsible providers coming together on a collaborative platform would ease engagement with the full spectrum of audiences necessary to build understanding and support.

The reputational risk is high, and getting higher

So far in this century there have been two major moments in which the industry saw rapid growth: Iraq and Afghanistan in the early to mid-2000s, when armed security was critical to stabilisation and development, and the spike in Somali piracy from the late 2000s to early 2010s, when the same services were vital to keeping trade flowing through the Indian Ocean. In both cases, the high demand and challenges around regulation saw a proliferation of companies ranging from the serious and ethical to the downright dangerous as the Walter Mity characters predictably turned up looking for a quick buck or a few war stories.

The latest cost estimate for rebuilding Ukraine is over $400 billion. When international companies begin entering to take on that task, the security sector will see a new surge in demand, and the Walters will follow. They will provide a low-cost option to clients, and experienced professionals will watch in frustration as respected global brands hire their services for sheer lack of appreciation as to the peril in which they are putting their employees and the reputational risks they are taking on by association with their corner-cutting security provider. The industry needs to speak up now, and educate the wider business community on what responsible security practices look like and why it is so important never to compromise.

The technical argument isn’t working

The way the industry talks about itself is lost on the outside world. A recurring theme among security wonks is the need to distinguish between private security contractors (PSCs) and private military contractors (PMCs), with the logic that the former presents a more legitimate industry distinct from the amorality of ‘guns for hire.’ These are semantics. They are based on the caricatures that live on the extreme ends of the spectrum, and debating them is futile. Journalists, policymakers, legislators, investors and even clients simply won’t care about the purported differences when many firms have people carrying metal detectors at music festivals just as they have people carrying arms in conflict zones. At best, attempts to make the distinction will fail and PMCs and PSCs will be lumped together regardless – this already has become such a habit that the relationship would be difficult to shake off (hence a third descriptor – PMSC – has entered common use). At worst, there’s a risk that companies are seen simply as trying to obfuscate.

With the lines set to remain blurry, separation from the murkier corners of private contracting demands a targeted communications strategy that moves beyond the semantics of PMC vs PSC and into a world in which it is simply clear to everyone what ‘good’ looks like.

The industry has reached maturity

Gone are the days when private security was near-invisible to the outside world and proper governance was an afterthought. Modern companies carry out increasingly stringent vetting and training, and basic security services are often blended with skilled consultancy. Auditors like MSS Global certify companies against international standards, and ICoCA – also dubbed the Responsible Security Association – is doing much to raise ethical standards across the industry. Since forming in 2013, the Association has provided training on responsible security provision and helped companies reduce risk around human rights. It certifies those it finds as being compliant with the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers, which sets out a framework of responsible governance, and monitors member organisations to ensure that compliance endures. Just as importantly, it stands as a convening power for the full spectrum of interested stakeholders and provides a voice for security providers who share its determination to promote better practices across industry.

These are the green shoots of grown-up regulation the likes of which are seen in more visible sectors, and with heightened scrutiny comes a need for a serious approach to communication. This need is made only more acute by the fact that going under the microscope is still largely voluntary, which is creating a two-tier industry that is viewed only as the sum of its varyingly capable parts. Businesses employing security services are rarely under obligation to demand specific standards, and this is especially true in parts of the world where reduced scrutiny is accompanied by heightened security threats. The consequence is that low-quality service providers are free to operate where the risks are greatest, and in doing so they jeopardise the reputation of the entire industry.


Legitimising a business means bringing it in line with the latest norms. In today’s environment, communications planning is critical to success, and the need couldn’t be more urgent than for companies exposed to the level of risk faced by those providing security services. Whether driven by Ukraine, other ongoing conflicts, or some event as yet unthinkable, the next surge in demand will not be far away, and with it will come more scrutiny than has been known before. Private security companies must get ahead of this by working with key client industries like mining and energy to raise standards for entry, collaborating with policy-setting governments to build understanding and empower responsible providers, engaging with governments and communities in countries of operation to build reassurance and cooperation, and educating journalists on the reality and importance of the services the industry provides. Achieving this calls for time and resource to be invested in a proper communications strategy.





The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).