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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

A double-edged sword for CEOs

For security professionals, the political environment requires high levels of coordination across a number of departments.

A double-edged sword for CEOs
[Kadmy / Adobe Stock]

When it comes to mixing business and politics, executives have traditionally lived by a simple maxim: don’t, at least not publicly.

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The reason isn’t complicated. In a world where success may be measured in sales growth of 5%, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to weigh in on something that could anger 50% of the country, especially if the topic isn’t related to the business.

Employees, investors, and activists are, to a greater extent, connecting the dots between once-radioactive political topics and the business community. For executives, the political environment can be a double-edged sword. Speaking out generates predictable levels of criticism and applause. So does remaining silent. Stakeholders take notice of those who remain on the sidelines, and those who issue tepid statements designed to appease all.

Of course, taking any position on any issue (or not doing so) is an individual corporate decision influenced by many factors. But no matter what, for physical security professionals, the political environment creates new security challenges. A recent survey conducted by my company found that more than half of physical security and IT professionals said their CEO received physical threats for either expressing (58%) or not expressing (40%) a position on racial justice or political views in the first half of 2021.

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More than one-third (35%) agree that their CEO’s expressing concern publicly about extremists has resulted in new physical security threats, and nearly the same amount (33%) agree their company has experienced an increase in physical threats and backlash tied to extremism, racial justice and political issues. Over half (56%) also agree their CEO has received physical threats as a result of encouraging vaccinations and mask use.

THE NEW NORMAL

For security professionals, the political environment requires high levels of coordination across a number of departments. And everyone should be aware that steps that would be innocuous and uncontroversial in the past might generate friction in this climate.

Consider, for example, an issue that many CEOs found themselves facing last year. As discussions of class, race, and social justice began filtering through our workspaces, employees at some companies began demanding executives speak out on internal and external issues. These debates often had big impacts on productivity and morale.

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At some firms, executives issued simple directives asking employees to refrain from discussing controversial issues at work. The company was in the business of business, not politics. But those sorts of directives, which in years past might have seemed like a normal attitude to take, were met with controversy. They weren’t seen as neutral policies designed to benefit the needs of the business, but rather hostile to the issues that vocal employees were trying to address.

Some of these memos even leaked to the media.

PREPARE FOR THE UNEXPECTED

Keeping executives safe should be the number one priority for security professionals. But the current environment makes threat assessment difficult. Traditionally, executives kept quiet, and that more or less eliminated politics as a motivation for threats. We don’t have that situation today.

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To keep executives safe, security professionals should work with a cross-functional team to:

• Proactively monitor the media for hot-button political issues.

• Work with your social media team to determine which issues are generating significant engagement.

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• Review social media policies across the company. Determine whether employees’ personal social media accounts that are politically involved can be associated with the company.

• Ask senior executives to notify security teams of any statement they plan on making that may seem controversial.

• Develop a plan to monitor for and respond to emerging threats in the wake of any statements.

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NO SAFE HARBOR

You may agree with your CEO’s public stances. You may disagree. From a security perspective, whether you agree or not is not important. Frankly, the current political environment means that your executives are subject to security risk whether they weigh in on matters of public importance or not.

There’s one thing that’s certain: A reactive security stance is woefully inadequate. In an environment where you are damned if you don’t and damned if you do, security professionals need to know what issues are motivating people so they can develop an integrated, cross-functional plan to prevent one post (or lack thereof) from becoming a larger issue.


Lukas Quanstrom is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ontic Technologies, the first protective intelligence software company.

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