Business Travel Risk

Risky Territory

As business travel increases, risk managers need intelligence and communication systems to keep employees safe.
By: | October 1, 2014 • 10 min read

In mid-August, Boart Longyear Co., a global mineral exploration company, removed nine employees from Liberia after the Ebola virus broke out in a nearby village.

“Our customer shut down operations, and we’re evacuating,” said Rob Osha, global director of risk management at the company in August.

“There’s a lot of talk about closing borders and not letting air travelers out, so we’re working right now to make sure our crews leave Liberia.”

Video: The Ebola crisis continues to worsen, with a “best case” estimate of 500,000 dead by end of January 2015.

It’s not just deadly diseases that worry risk managers.

“A few years ago,” said Jan Randolph, director of sovereign risk at IHS Country Risk, “I was stuck in Qatar, due to go to Bahrain to visit some banks. This is when Bahrain had quite a lot of demonstrations and rioting going on.

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“We checked our website, and there was a UK travel government advisory that advised all UK nationals not to travel to Bahrain. That means if we went, our insurance cover was potentially not valid.

“In practice, it probably would have been okay, but that advisory made it a no go,” he said.

As economies become more interconnected, businesses expand globally and more employees are sent abroad, scenarios like Osha’s and Randolph’s may become the norm. Yet too many risk managers may be unaware of the risks involved with global travel or take the proper steps to ensure employees’ safety.

Growth of International Travel

According to the Global Business Travel Association, U.S. spending on international travel may jump as much as 6.6 percent, to $289.8 billion in 2014, while total person trip volume is expected to increase 1.7 percent, to 461 million trips for the year.

Charlie LeBlanc, vice president of security services, UnitedHealthcare International

Charlie LeBlanc, vice president of security services, UnitedHealthcare International

“In this world that is smaller and more mobile, emergency evacuations happen more often than they did 10 years ago,” said Charlie LeBlanc, vice president of security services at UnitedHealthcare International (formerly FrontierMEDEX).

“That also has a lot to do with the fact that the world, politically, is much more volatile than in the last 20 or 30 years. We have to be able to react quickly.”

Steve Kellner, global head of intelligence and risk assessment for Verizon International Security Group, said: “I saw a news article recently that said there are only 11 countries not at war. The same article also said roughly only 60 percent of companies monitor their employees’ travel. It’s a big world, and a lot to keep up with.”

Kellner’s team monitors 15,000 to 18,000 employee trips per year.

Many smaller businesses or nonprofit organizations don’t have the budget for a security department that can educate their travelers [about security risks], so they depend on others, Kellner said. Problems can easily arise with “the little things that you don’t plan on.”

“Mining and oil and gas people have this buttoned up pretty tight,” Osha said. “They work in some of the most remote, tricky areas of the world.

“But there are a lot of companies that send a lot of business travelers that don’t necessarily work in the field. Even if you’re just traveling for a business meeting, things can change on a dime,” he said.

Pre-Travel Risk Mitigation

Travel preparation should begin before a flight is even booked.

“For very high risk countries, it’s a no go unless you get approval from the executive committee,” Osha said.

“I would do research on the security environment where they’re going, what I think the relative risk is and what the mitigations might be. Is the trip business-critical? Do we need to put that person at risk? Are there other ways to mitigate or not?”

“The most important asset you can have is information intelligence,” Randolph said.

“You need to know if the risk level is green or yellow or red, or if a developing scenario could reach a flash point.”

Video: The families of expat employees may be more at risk than the employees themselves.

Bob Gill, vice president of global security for Quintiles, a consulting firm for the life sciences industry, said his team develops risk profiles for every country they visit or may visit in the future.

“We cover security and safety, health and medical situations, medical infrastructure, regulatory issues, human rights issues, economic sanctions, bribery and corruption. Those are the key areas,” he said.

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Even when companies give the green light, travelers should receive safety and awareness training tailored to the area they’re visiting.

“We have to look at risk from a variety of angles,” LeBlanc said.

“We look from the perspective of, when do our travelers start to feel uncomfortable? What are their risk tolerances?”

Political stability, crime, and cultural differences should all factor into a risk assessment, he said.

“As companies and economies are growing, their workforces are going to countries they didn’t go to five years ago,” LeBlanc said.

“That means a lot of novice travelers. For some, it may be their first international trip. And it’s not to London; it’s to Bangkok.”

Pre-travel training should cover basic “Safety 101” principles — like moving in groups and not opening the hotel door if no visitors are expected — but it should also include general background information on the destination country.

Travelers should know everything from what weather to expect, to what behaviors are acceptable in different cultures, to what inoculations they may need. Gender-specific training may also be necessary; women face greater risk in certain places, LeBlanc said.

“We have a traveler tracking system that is tied into our corporate reservation system,” Kellner said.

“When employees book travel, my group is alerted two weeks to 30 days ahead of time. We meet with them, whether they’re a naïve traveler or a group that goes constantly.”

At Verizon International Security Group, the company organizes a “meet and greet” program through its local offices to pick up incoming travelers or arrange transportation for them. Boart Longyear coordinates with their customers to see if they can provide transportation.

Traveler Tracking

Some risk management and security departments utilize traveler tracking software to centralize employees’ flight and hotel reservations, so they always know who is in what part of the world.

Being able to locate people anywhere in the world in real time allows risk managers to focus their attention and resources where they’re needed. Ensuring safe travel on the ground requires coordinated efforts and constant communication.

additional photo for webFor example, if 18 out of 20 employees are accounted for in a region hit by an earthquake, more time and energy can be devoted to tracking down the last two, instead of everyone in the group. If no employees are in the area, then attention can be focused elsewhere, to the next evolving crisis.

Travel assistance companies like UnitedHealthcare International (UHI), iJET and Europ Assistance offer software programs that not only track where employees are, but can push out automatic communications notifying them of potential threats in the area — like earthquake or tsunami warnings — or reminding them to check in.

Typically updated at least once per hour, the systems provide real-time data that is so crucial to crisis response.

“In the really risky countries, we establish check calls,” Osha said, “where an employee checks in every few hours to our outsourced security company’s operations team.

“In some places in Africa, they actually hire military to follow their company convoy,” he said, “or we see if they can fly point-to-point to cut out some of the risk of traveling on the ground.”

The advent of advanced cell phone technology has made the job of employee monitoring and communication much easier.

“As little as 10 years ago,” LeBlanc said, “I’d be carrying four or five different cell phones depending on what country I was going to. Now I just need one. That kind of power is extremely beneficial; risk managers need to be able to account for their people in a very short period of time.”

Call centers that operate 24 hours a day — also manned by third party travel assistance providers — help ensure that employees can always reach someone if they run into trouble.

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“Communication is your lifeline in many cases,” Randolph said. “You have to think, as an employee, what would you expect from your company? Who would you want to contact in an emergency?”

Boart Longyear’s crisis hotline, provided by iJET, routes employees’ calls to the appropriate department, whether it’s a medical emergency, security issue or internal problem. More often than not, though, simple text messages or emails suffice to keep everyone connected.

“The best part of working for a telecommunications company,” Kellner of Verizon said, “is that most of our travelers go with a global phone. We can always text or call them to check on them and make sure they’re safe.”

Crisis Response

Sometimes, no amount of intelligence can prevent simmering tensions from bubbling over, and no amount of monitoring can keep employees away from a natural disaster. Travel risk management should include policies and plans for when companies need to pull their people out of harm’s way quickly.

The most common reason for evacuations is a medical issue, rather than violence or political unrest. Travelers, rather than their employers, usually make the call as to whether they will abandon their travel due to a health issue.

“In medical situations, there tends to be a wider circle of hesitance to go,” LeBlanc said. Potential for violence doesn’t seem to stop travel as surely.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, posed a relatively small risk to Western travelers but still sparked a worldwide scare. Flying out of the affected countries of Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone became more challenging as other countries were unwilling to take on the risk of accepting any visitors from those areas.

Luckily, governments rarely set strict travel restrictions in such situations, so while evacuations can get tricky when a pandemic hits, it is still possible to leave the country.

Nita Madhav, analyst and researcher, AIR Worldwide

Nita Madhav, analyst and researcher, AIR Worldwide

“In today’s world, economies are so interconnected that complete isolation isn’t feasible,” said Nita Madhav, analyst and researcher at catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

“The best way for companies to mitigate is to stay aware of the global situation and which countries may be at risk for circulating diseases, and make sure that employees are up to date on vaccines,” she said.

Madhav identified the Middle East and Brazil as up-and-coming markets for air travel, which could make them riskier from a health perspective as business travel picks up.

Political and social tensions also pose an evacuation threat, though those risks are more rare than a medical threat.

Maintaining intelligence and proactively removing employees from potentially dangerous areas allows employers to avoid last-ditch evacuations. Government advisories, data from third party security firms, input from local employees and even social media trends help to paint a picture of emerging threats and areas to watch.

Still, things can change in an instant.

“We had to evacuate our expatriate staff out of Mali when they had a coup,” Osha said. “You do have to watch country elections, because violence and protests could follow.”

“In Libya,” Randolph of IHS Country Risk said, “they’re having a drawn-out civil war, and oil and gas companies have been involved in drawing out their staff, leaving behind only key personnel.

“You have to maintain your asset and your security as well as you can, but otherwise de-operationalize. You have a duty of care,” he said.

The Trickiest Risk

Natural disasters pose the trickiest travel risks to mitigate and often require the immediate, emergency response that risk managers try to avoid. Once tracking systems identify who’s in danger, it’s up to crisis management teams to get them to safety.

“You really need the right people in the room that are experienced with the global operations of their company,” said LeBlanc of UHI.

“They need the authority to make decisions quickly, whether they’re legal, financial, or human resource related. And they have to work well as a team.”

When UHI trains its clients on crisis management, it typically spends half a day on team-building alone, and keeps the core team limited to about 10 people.

Rapidly growing companies will face challenges learning how to manage increased travel to all parts of the world, but the realities of travel risk cannot be ignored. The consequences of shrugging off safe travel preparations are too great.

“Colleagues I work with have a keen sense of how travel has changed since 9/11,” Gill of Quintiles said.

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“That was the issue that brought travel security and safety to the forefront.”

But others say more progress is needed.

“I’ve given travel risk presentations at RIMS for a few years now,” Osha said, “and I’m shocked by the people who approach me after the sessions — large, brand name companies — saying their programs aren’t robust enough.

“It makes me think that there are a lot more companies out there that need to start working on this than you may expect.”

Katie Siegel is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Reputational Risk

Under Siege

Driven by social media, political wars spill over into the corporate arena, threatening reputations.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 12 min read

On Jan. 28, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called a strike at John F. Kennedy International Airport, one day after President Trump signed an executive order banning entry of foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations, including a blanket ban on refugees. The strike was an act of solidarity with immigrants, and a public display of the Alliance’s opposition to the executive order.

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Uber, however, continued to service the airport, tweeting that it would halt surge pricing during the protests. Some saw it as an opportunistic ploy to get more riders to use Uber. A #deleteUber Twitter campaign was quickly born, with users tweeting screen shots of themselves removing the app from their smartphones.

More than 200,000 were estimated to have uninstalled the ride-sharing service over the course of the weekend.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick reacted, creating a $3 million legal defense fund to provide lawyers and immigration experts for any of its drivers that were barred from the U.S., and promising that drivers would be compensated for lost wages.

Over the same weekend, in response to the travel ban, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that the company would hire 10,000 refugees worldwide over the next five years. Then it was Starbucks turn to get punished in the public arena. A #boycottStarbucks campaign was launched by people who felt the company should focus more on hiring American veterans.

Athletic shoemaker New Balance suffered blowback in November of 2016 when its vice president of communications, Matt LeBretton, told the “Wall Street Journal” in an interview that he believed “things are going to move in the right direction” under the new administration. Angry customers began posting pictures of themselves trashing or even burning their New Balance sneakers.

These social media-fueled public relations crises demonstrate how fickle public opinion can be. They also serve as warning signs of growing reputational risk for corporations.

Uber, for example, typically stops its surge pricing in the event of emergency so as not to exploit a crisis for its own benefit. To do so during the protests and taxi strike at JFK was perhaps meant to show its respect for the event.

Helen Chue, global risk manager, Facebook

Starbucks’ 10,000 refugee hires would be spread out across its locations around the globe, not just in the U.S., where the coffee conglomerate already promised to hire 25,000 veterans and military spouses by 2025.

New Balance’s LeBretton was speaking specifically about the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his interview, and how the deal could hurt sneaker production in the U.S. while favoring foreign producers — he wasn’t talking about Trump’s other proposed plans.

These companies, in reality, did nothing as abhorrent and scandalous as the Twitterverse may have led some to believe, but context isn’t always provided in 140 characters.

Public Pressure

Complaints and boycotts have been launched at companies via social media for perhaps as long as social media has existed. But the current contentious environment created by one of the most divisive leaders in American history now colors every public statement made by prominent business leaders with a political tint. Executives are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’re exposed to reputational damage whether they oppose or endorse a Trump action, or even if they do nothing at all.

Take Elon Musk, for example, founder of Tesla and SpaceX and a well-known advocate for climate research and environmental protection. He came under fire for not publicly denouncing the travel ban and for keeping his seat on Trump’s business advisory council.

Musk has largely avoided the limelight on political issues, couching statements when he makes them at all — as most executives are wont to do. But he was prodded to defend himself on Twitter after some users suggested he was a hypocrite.

“Be proactive in your plans to mitigate the aftermath and how to communicate. Own up to error. Be transparent. Salvage your crown jewel.” —Helen Chue, global risk manager, Facebook

A strategy of avoidance may no longer work as consumers, employees and the public at large pressure companies to make a statement or take action in response to political events.

“A large segment of the population expects the people they do business with and the companies they buy from to support their point of view or respond to political or social issues in a certain way,” said Chrystina M. Howard, senior vice president, strategic risk consulting, Willis Towers Watson.

In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t environment, reputation risk is expanding, and risk managers need to re-evaluate how they assess their exposure and build mitigation strategies.

A True Crisis?

The challenge begins with determining whether a negative public relations event is really a crisis. Is it a temporary blow to a brand, or does it have the potential to do long-term reputation damage? Misreading the signs could lead companies to overreact and further tarnish their image.

“These sudden public relations crises are a source of panic for companies, but sometimes it sounds much worse than it actually is. The financial ramifications may not be anywhere near what was feared,” Howard said.

“Uber is probably a good example of what not to do,” said Jeff Cartwright, director of communications at Morning Consult, a brand and political intelligence firm.

“They maybe went over the top in trying to reverse the way they handled the protests at JFK.”

Tracking brand value in real time can give risk managers insight into the true impact of a negative social media campaign or bad press.  Michael Ramlet, CEO and co-founder of Morning Consult, said most events don’t damage brands as much as trending hashtags make it appear.

Morning Consult’s proprietary brand tracking tool allows companies to measure their brand perception against influencing events like a spike of Twitter mentions and news stories. More often than not, overall brand loyalty remains on par with industry averages.

In Uber’s case, Twitter mentions spiked to roughly 8,800 on Jan. 29, up from about 1,000 the day before. By Jan. 31, though, the number was back down to around 1,250 and quickly settled back down to its average numbers. From the beginning of the #deleteUber campaign through the end of February, Uber’s favorability shrunk from 50 percent to roughly 40 percent, based on a series of polls taken by 18,908 respondents.

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It’s a significant dip, but likely not a permanent stain on the company’s reputation, especially after Kalanick’s public show of support for immigrants and rejection of the travel ban. Uber’s favorability rating remained higher than competitor Lyft’s throughout the ordeal.

“The #deleteUber campaign turned out to be a very local thing that didn’t have a widespread impact,” Ramlet said.

“Twitter at best is an imputed analysis of what people are saying. The vocal minority might be very active, but there might be a silent majority who still think fondly of a brand, or at least have no negative opinions of it.”

He said risk managers can also benefit by breaking down their brand perception into geographic and demographic subsets. It can, for example, show whether a brand is favored more heavily by Democrats or Republicans.

“If you have that data on day one, it can help you determine how to respond if, say, Trump tweets at you,” Ramlet said.

Of course, some spikes in news media and social media attention are indicative of much deeper problems and true reputational risk.

After the Wells Fargo dummy-account scandal broke, for example, unfavorability ratings as measured by Morning Consult jumped from roughly 20 percent to nearly 55 percent, while favorability dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent. Net favorability, which stood at 33 percent pre-scandal, fell to -4 percent post-scandal.

“They went from being the most popular bank to the least popular in less than four months, according to our data,” Ramlet said.

The contrast between Uber’s and Wells Fargo’s stories demonstrates the difference between a more surface-level public-relations event that temporarily hurts brand image, and a true reputation event.

“Failures that produce real and lasting damage to reputation include failures of ethics, innovation, safety, security, quality and sustainability,” said Nir Kossovksy, CEO of Steel City Re.

“Activists make a lot of noise that can be channeled through various media, but for the most part in the business world, stakeholders are interested in the goods and services a company offers, not in their political or social views. As long as you can meet stakeholder expectations, you avoid long-term reputational damage.”

Wells Fargo’s scandal involved a violation of ethics, sparked an SEC investigation and forced the resignation of its CEO, John Stumpf. It’s safe to say stakeholders were severely disappointed.

That’s not to say, however, that a tarnished brand name doesn’t also impact the bottom line.

“Even if a bad event is short-lived, the equity markets react quickly, so there may be sharp equity dips. There may be some economic impact even over the short term,” Kossovsky said, “because sharp dips are dog whistles for activists, litigators and corporate raiders.”

Social Media Machine

The root of reputation risk’s tightening grip lies in the politicizing of business, and consumers’ increased desire to buy from companies that share their values. Social media may not be driving that trend, but it acts as a vehicle for it.

“Social media has really changed the game in terms of brand equity, and has given people another way to choose who they give their money to,” Howard of Willis Towers Watson said.

Platforms like Twitter make it easier for consumers to directly reach out to big companies and allow news to travel at warp speed.

“Social media are communication channels that can take a story and make it widely available. In that regard, the media risk is no different than that posed by a newspaper or radio channel,” Kossovsky said.

“The difference today that changes the strategy for risk managers and boards is that social media has been weaponized: Stories shared on social media don’t necessarily have to contain truthful content, and there’s not always an obvious difference between what’s true and what’s not.”

Helen Chue, Facebook’s global risk manager, agreed.

“More influential than social media platforms is today’s culture of immediacy and headlines. Because we are inundated with information from so many sources, we scan the headlines, form our opinions and go from there,” she said.

“It’s dangerous to draw conclusions without taking a balanced approach, but who has the time and patience to sift through all the different viewpoints?”

An environment of political divisiveness, driven by speed and immediacy of social media, creates the risk that false or half-true stories are disseminated before companies have a chance to clarify. This is what happened to Uber and New Balance.

“It creates the opportunity to turn a non-problem into a problem,” Kossovksy said.

“That’s how social media changes the calculus of risk management.”

Risk Mitigation

The best way to battle both political pressure and social media’s speed is through an ironclad communication strategy; a process that risk managers can lead.

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“Risk managers play a crucial role in mitigating reputation risk,” Howard said.

“They bring with them the discipline of managing and monitoring a risk, having a plan and responding to crisis. Now they really have to partner with communications, marketing and PR.”

They also have to get the attention of their board of directors.

“If you let a gap form between what you say and what you do, that gap is the definition of reputation risk.” — Nir Kossovksy, CEO of Steel City Re

“This is both a company-wide risk and personal leadership risk, so the board needs to drive a company-wide policy that protects the board as well,” Kossovsky said.

The art of mitigating reputation risk, he said, comes down to managing expectations. Corporate communications should clearly convey what a company believes and what it does not believe; what it can do and what it can’t do. And those stated values need to align with the operational reality. It comes down to creating credibility and legitimacy.

“If you let a gap form between what you say and what you do, that gap is the definition of reputation risk,” he said. A strong communication strategy can prevent adverse events from turning into reputational threats.

Willis Towers Watson helps clients test their strategies through a table-top exercise in which they have to respond to a social media-driven reputation event.

“We’ll say, ‘Something happened with X product, and now everyone’s on Twitter lambasting you and calling for resignations, etc.’ What do you do on day one? What do you do a week out? How long do you continue to monitor it and keep it on your radar?” Howard said.

“If you have that plan in place, you can fine-tune it going forward as circumstances change.”

Sometimes, though, the communication strategy fails, and a company falls short of meeting stakeholders’ expectations. Now it’s time for crisis management.

“Volatility creates vulnerability. If you stumble on your corporate message, it creates an opportunity for activists, litigators and corporate raiders to exploit. So you need to have authoritative third parties who can attest to your credibility and affirm the truth of the situation to open-minded stakeholders,” Kossovsky said.

Owning up to any mistakes, reaffirming the truth and being as transparent as possible will be key in any response plan.

Insuring the Risk

Recouping dollars lost from reputation damage requires a blend of mathematics with a little magic. While some traditional products are available, reputation risk is, for the most part, an intangible and uninsurable risk.

“Many companies have leveraged their captive insurance companies in the absence of traditional reputation products in the marketplace,” said Derrick Easton, managing director, alternative risk transfer solutions practice, Willis Towers Watson.

“It goes back to measuring a loss that can include lost revenue, or increased costs. Some companies build indexes in the same way we might create an index for a weather product, using rainfall or wind speed. For reputation, we might use stock price or a more refined index,” he said.

“If we can measure a potential loss, we can build a financing structure.”

While there’s no clear-cut way to measure losses from reputation damage, “stock performance and reported sales changes are some of the best tools we have,” Howard said.

Some insurers, including Allianz and Tokiomarine Kiln, and Steel City Re, an MGA, do offer reputation policies. When these fit a company’s needs, they have the ancillary benefit of affirming quality of governance and sending a signal that the insured is prepared to defend itself.

“Because reputation assurance is only available to companies that have demonstrated sound governance processes, it helps to convince people that if a bad piece of news happens, it’s idiosyncratic; it doesn’t reflect what the company really stands for,” Kossovsky of Steel City Re said.

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“And it tells activists, broadly defined, not to look for low-hanging fruit here.”

In a volatile political environment, companies fare best when they simply tell the truth.

“The American public will accept an apology if delivered quickly and if it’s sincere,” said Stephen Greyser, Richard P. Chapman professor (marketing/communications) emeritus, of the Harvard Business School.

“Tell the truth. Don’t stonewall. A bad social media campaign can be an embarrassment, but if you stick to the facts and apologize when you need to, people forget about the bad quickly.”

“Reputation is the crown jewel,” Chue said. “Given the power of social media’s reach, one individual can have a tsunami-like influence. And it can happen when you least expect it, and it will probably be something you thought was innocuous or even positive that sets off a maelstrom.

“Plan for the worst-case scenario. Be proactive in your plans to mitigate the aftermath and how to communicate. Own up to error. Be transparent. Salvage your crown jewel.” &

Katie Siegel is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]