Armed deterrent is making an impact, but at a price

In the fight against piracy, it is widely accepted that the armed deterrent is making an impact, but at a price. With the recent publication by One Earth Foundation estimating that private security is costing just over a half a billion dollars last year, the spotlight is shining upon the private maritime security sector like never before, particularly given the current period of austerity! And yet, for all its merits, it has taken some time for this method of deterrence against piracy to gain acceptance in the shipping community. Opinion remains divided, where concerns remain not only of whether to 'go armed', but more importantly whom to trust with the provision of such a service? Where reputations are at stake, private maritime security companies (PMSC's) are under significant pressure to provide a high quality service. The inherent risks are well known and whilst many are working extremely hard to deliver their product, exactly what armed guards do and how they do it is still misunderstood. It would appear that the 'armed debate' continues, confusingly, often without maritime security companies' contribution.

It is acknowledged that with the comparative surge in contemporary piracy, a frustrated shipping industry has been forced to adopt much more robust measures to deter hijackers. Whilst 'Best Management Practice' has been incorporated as an industry standard in transiting high-risk waters, the private security sector has also contributed in the form of armed guards. Supply of the armed deterrent has certainly kept pace with demand and with the inevitable proliferation of maritime security has come significant choice; "armed" providers have appeared literally out of nowhere. So much so, that some traditional 'land based' security providers have identified the opportunities at sea and added 'maritime security' to their list of services. After all, how hard could it be? Very, if we are to consider the challenges of moving security teams and their equipment, to the right place at the right time, with all necessary permissions and licences in place, in accordance with the clients' wishes; it is not to be underestimated.

Throughout the growth of PMSC's in an immature and unregulated sector, there has been a varying standard of service, which has not helped the sector with its credibility. Opinion remains divided as to the legal and moral justification of armed guards on board commercial vessels. The armed deterrent challenges long ago established international law, and exist in a seemingly grey miasma of legal interpretation to operate. However, despite the early stories of security teams smuggling weapons on board and employing vague rules for the use of force, maritime security providers have now become highly adept at delivering their product. The overall service is now far more transparent and compliant with codes of conduct and a cogent respect for local and international laws. Many reputable PMSC's retain a maritime lawyer of some kind, safeguarding their actions throughout. Undeniably, PMSC's have delivered a much-needed antidote to modern piracy, focusing upon the business of delivery and unless challenged, steering well away from the 'armed deterrent' debate.

So why bother engaging in the armed debate? After all, maritime security providers are doing a thriving business servicing the shipping community. Well, there might be a benefit to creating a relatively benign environment for the service to be delivered. That means exerting some 'influence'; a conditions based approach that develops a broad and coherent understanding of maritime security; after all, not everyone 'gets it'! Consider the debate without the PMSC's input, a narrative of half-truths and hypothesis, without informed opinion from the very people delivering this difficult task - the maritime security provider. How many times has maritime security providers had to explain the difference between a rule of engagement and a rule for the use of force? How often has the escalation of violence theory been wheeled out to dismiss the armed deterrent outright? How frequent has the jurisdiction and ultimate use of armed guards in territorial waters been discussed? All these issues inform the narrative and quite simply, if you're not in the conversation, then you have no influence over it and skewed definitions and conclusions will pervade, potentially inhibiting business development. In 2011, when MP's of the UK Parliamentary Select Committee asked for subject matter expert witnesses to answer questions on Somali Piracy. Various representatives from the shipping community appeared including EUNAVFOR and a maritime lawyer, but only one private maritime security company chose to participate and even then declined to appear in person and submit written evidence instead.

Another by-product of public relations engagement might also include preparation for a crisis - an interruption of business critical to the reputation and continuance of that business - which given the nature of the armed deterrent, should feature high on the list of pre-requisites for delivery! In times of crisis it is crucial for an organisation to possess a capacity to communicate, to have its own narrative already in the public domain, where an understanding of their product already exists. It is a supreme challenge for any business to simultaneously have to communicate bad news and also explain what it is they do and how they do it. To have an established relationship with the media before the crisis breaks allows for an exchange of information based upon a tacit understanding of the product, even an element of trust, ensuring that communicating through the crisis is achieved coherently and with credibility safeguarding reputation throughout. For some, the realisation to proactively communicate and market their 'product' has only come after finding themselves in a crisis. As the maritime security sector witnessed one of the leading PMSC's have four of its operatives detained in North Africa for nearly six months in 2011, this incident showed just how risky the provision of the armed deterrent can be. The company in question had to learn very quickly exactly how to respond to a hostile media and maintain the integrity of the business (reputation) whilst delivering a first class service to its clients throughout the crisis.

But credit where it's due, a minority of PMSC's are just beginning to observe the benefit of public relations engagement. There is a growing appetite for traditional and digital communications, participating in debate, offering opinion and most importantly of all shaping the environment in order to function as legitimate and successful businesses in their own right.

But without doubt, all Private Maritime Security providers operate under intense scrutiny at sea, in commerce, and in complex legal and moral frameworks, where credibility and reputation are intrinsic to the business of delivery. Placing individuals in high-risk environments is not undertaken lightly and many PMSC's deliver a very high quality service in exceptionally challenging circumstances. However, in the interests of future business, they just might benefit from talking about it a little more.

Paul Gibbins

Director at PGC Global