The recent events in Venezuela with riots in the street and the political opposition being jailed should worry any corporate security, business continuity, intelligence, or crisis management professional.
Whether you’re doing business in Venezuela or not, the developments over the past few weeks should cause companies to review their current approach to managing global risk, monitoring developments around the world, and their plans to respond to an international incident.
In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser and Senior Consultant Jennifer Otremba discuss their experiences during the 2011 – 2013 uprisings across North Africa & the Middle East – and several specific tactics that they used during the unrest in Egypt that impacted their then-employer. Topics discussed include the need for a command center or “radar screen” to monitor and rapidly respond to global developments, crisis planning, leading through international security incidents, and tactics that you can use to better prepare your organization for similar events.
Bryan Strawser: All over the news right now-
Jen Otremba: Everywhere.
Bryan Strawser: … is the problem in Venezuela.
Jen Otremba: It’s a huge deal.
Bryan Strawser: The problem in Venezuela, actually, has been going on for quite a while, but it hit a new point this week when … What was it that happened? There was an election.
Jen Otremba: Yup.
Bryan Strawser: The opposition group that didn’t win told their people to take it to the streets.
Jen Otremba: They did. Yes.
Bryan Strawser: When we talk about taking it to the streets here in the U.S., we’re talking about #resist or whatever.
Jen Otremba: Yes [crosstalk 00:00:51].
Bryan Strawser: We might be out blocking some traffic but we’re not out there doing what’s going on in Venezuela. It got violent in a hurry.
Jen Otremba: Very quickly, yes.
Bryan Strawser: What we saw from the US State Department, what? Three days ago, at the time that we’re recording this. You might hear this a week after it. Three days ago the US State Department said we are evacuating all non-essential consulate personnel, all dependents of consulate personnel that are essential. Basically we’re getting out, except for core personnel, and that their advice to US citizens was don’t go.
Jen Otremba: Right. You know it’s a big deal for government employees, but we were thinking about it in terms of past experiences that we’ve had.
Bryan Strawser: Because we’re not … Most US citizens and companies, because of Venezuela’s political situation, have not really been …
Jen Otremba: Right, like what does, why does this matter to me that much, you know?
Bryan Strawser: … operating there, right? But we thought about this in the context of an experience that we had been through that taught us a lot, and that was the situation in Egypt back in 2011, 2012, 2013.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: The Arab Spring, the bigger Arab Spring uprising that occurred across multiple counties that impacted what we were working on in a number of locations. We’re going to kind of put Venezuela in the context of Egypt a few years ago.
Jen Otremba: Right. It’s actually very similar to what was going on then, as far as getting people, having the need to get people out of the country.
Bryan Strawser: Not only that, but having a need to understand what was going on somewhere that a lot of people didn’t understand what was happening and why your business is impacted by this. What I recall from the situation in Egypt was that the company that we were working for at the time had a small office there of like 18 to 24 people and most of them were Egyptian citizens and we had a handful of ex-patriots, none of which were American, that were working there from elsewhere in our international operation. Egypt went from calm protesting to full on state on citizen violence in like 48 hours.
Jen Otremba: Extremely dangerous.
Bryan Strawser: We were monitoring and we were watching and we were like, this is pretty rough and people can’t get to work and they’re staying home to holy crap, we’ve got to get people out of there now.
Jen Otremba: Right. To put it in a context, we operated in a lot of different countries where it wasn’t necessarily safe like it is in the United States.
Bryan Strawser: We had a large office in Pakistan.
Jen Otremba: Absolutely. We’ve spent a lot of time monitoring these offices, so when it escalated, and it continued to escalate, there was at some point we had to make a decision.
Bryan Strawser: First some perspective on how quickly this moved. The following year, after this happened, I was at a US State Department meeting where the diplomatic regional security officer for Egypt talked about this uprising. He lived off embassy property and had gone home for the day and spent the next 70-some days managing this crisis from his condo because he couldn’t get back to the US embassy. It was not safe for him to travel despite all of the tools available to him as the head of diplomatic security in Egypt. Even the State Department was caught off guard by how quickly this moved. It was really that, that was that fast.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. It’s just almost like something you think you see in a movie that’s not really real, you know?
Bryan Strawser: To talk a little bit about first what we experienced and then what are the lessons and solutions you can draw from this, we had a couple immediate issues. One decision was just really easy and that was, look it’s not safe for our folks to travel from their homes to where the office is, so the office is closed. That was an easy call.
Jen Otremba: Yup.
Bryan Strawser: The second one was, well the office is in actual physical danger and we have assets in that office that are worth defending, so we’re going to, we’re going to retain some security that can be trusted to protect the office to a point. So we did that. Those were pretty easy decisions.
Then the complicated problems started, which is, as things escalated in Egypt, our employees became in physical danger, not just the ex-patriots who lived in some different areas, but also our Egyptian citizen employees. The place where they were living was not stable anymore. We had a spouse of an employee that was injured defending his home along with his neighbor. We came to the decision that the ex-pats should leave, and that’s a whole complicated process of how do we get them out of there.
Jen Otremba: Very much.
Bryan Strawser: Then there’s the issue of, okay what do we do with our citizen employees? Ultimately we relocated them to of all things, a Holiday Inn, but there was an Egyptian Army armored unit that was basing at this hotel, so we knew that it wasn’t going to get attacked and it had a functioning ATM, which turned out to be important.
Jen Otremba: And wifi.
Bryan Strawser: And it had wifi, so we could keep in touch with the team, but that was easily supported internally and a move that we could make. It wasn’t too difficult to pull off once the decision was made. Getting the ex-pats out was extremely difficult because unlike other situations, this had moved so quickly, most of our usual security providers didn’t have assets in country that would be able to support us and we really had some trouble figuring out how to do that. We also had complications because we didn’t know what visas the employees had to allow them to go to other countries.
Jen Otremba: And which countries they could go to.
Bryan Strawser: Where we could get them to. That wasn’t something we were tracking with ex-pats.
Jen Otremba: Right. That’s a quick process.
Bryan Strawser: Quick process, yeah, right. We had to get them on the phone and find out, and find out what was valid and what kind visa type. That was something that you want to track. If you have ex-patriots and you’ve got travelers, you need to know what’s in that passport, so that if something happens, you can get them to the right place of safety. The big challenge in this case was we had some folks that required a visa to travel to the EU and didn’t have an EU visa, and so we could only evacuate them to certain countries in the Middle East and only for air transit and that was the big problem. We ultimately figured that out, safely got them to the airport and got them into … In the Egypt situation, once you got inside the airport, you were fine. It was just getting to the airport that was a big problem.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: They were able to eventually get there.
Jen Otremba: Wouldn’t it have been great if we had a plan ahead of time?
Bryan Strawser: Yes.
Jen Otremba: For something like that.
Bryan Strawser: Yes, and we did later on. That’s another thing. Where you see these things going south, you want to secure resources in advance.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: Hopefully your resources are local or have, they’re going to be there. Our resources that we usually dealt with never did get in country until much later in the situation and then of course we didn’t need them.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: We definitely needed them in this case.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, so you got to have a plan, and then outside of the plan, it’s how do we know when this is escalating. It’s the monitoring that comes into play.
Bryan Strawser: We’ve talked about the idea of a radar screen before, and this is applicable here. We needed a way to know what was going on, and we had that. We had a very good, the crystal ball just failed us on this happening and what that meant.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: But we knew, we had good situational awareness of what was happening. We had good on the ground intel sources. We were getting very good information out of the US State Department Overseas Security Advisory Council.
Jen Otremba: Yup, we were able to give that information to our leadership.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: To help them to make decisions quickly.
Bryan Strawser: We were coordinating with other Twin Cities companies that had a presence in Egypt and getting good information from them and vice versa, about what they were seeing. We certainly didn’t have it as bad as some other Twin Cities companies did in this situation, that were in some really rough spots with this.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, with more people. We didn’t have as many people as they did either.
Bryan Strawser: Right. It’s very difficult when you have these situations where you’re not as familiar, and we weren’t … Egypt had never really arisen as an issue for us previously. It is very difficult if you’ve never had to deal with this to understand just how quickly the pace of these situations evolves and how difficult finding the right answer is in terms of getting people out of the country and such. There are some places you can go. Most companies use firms like International SOS or their travel security subsidiary. Global Guardian is another company that competes in the same space. There’s …
Jen Otremba: The State Department puts out …
Bryan Strawser: Control Risk Group, but there’s free stuff.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: The US State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council is a great source of detailed intelligence information, and when things happen, they make a point of communicating more tactical details about what’s going on.
Jen Otremba: That said, we kind of talked a little bit about how we hadn’t had too much experience in that particular area, so it’s understanding the global risk holistically, I think, is a big learning lesson for a lot of organizations in these situations. Understanding what could happen and why and what triggers would make that happen. For instance, a new president in a certain area of the world gets elected.
Bryan Strawser: It was interesting in the Egypt case that things calmed down when the military overthrew the president. In most cases that’s like a big trigger, like oh my God, things are going to get bad, but in this case, everybody packed up and went home and said, “Okay. We’re done.” Because …
Jen Otremba: We can’t fight this.
Bryan Strawser: Or it’s that this is the institution that we trust, and we’re going to let this play out, and we’re going to stop protesting, we’re going to stop the violence. We’ll see what happens in terms of an election, or their other demands that go on. But we did, when you think about planning in the moment, it’s good to start thinking about what are the things that could happen? What does that mean? What actions should we take in response to that?
We knew that if the army overthrew the president, that this was a good thing and it would likely lead to calm and that we would probably de-escalate from where we were, depending upon what other external factors were happening.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: Whereas if the army didn’t make that move and there was a crackdown on free speech, we knew that that was an escalation.
Jen Otremba: Yup.
Bryan Strawser: Those were the triggers that we were thinking about to lead to further action.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and just like every other situation, we assigned one person that was in charge of managing all this information and then we had others that were in charge of managing all of the other crises in the world. It wasn’t just a siloed attention on that instant.
Bryan Strawser: This is a good example of where having a robust crisis management framework, a decision-making process and a communication process is important because this is very unpredictable. We didn’t think at the beginning of that year that we would be managing a, an office shut down and a revolution in Egypt and disruption in other countries, so we didn’t have a plan for that. Having that framework where you can push out information and you can bring your group together to make decisions was important.
Jen Otremba: Absolutely.
Bryan Strawser: To wrap things up, when we have these large disruptions at country level like we’re seeing in Venezuela, it’s a great time to look at, do you have a plan, your crisis management framework, your process by which you make decisions. Do you have a radar screen? Do you have access to free or proprietary paid intel resources that can help you understand what is going on and what this means and where this might lead? Are you ready for this kind of situation? Are you prepared to make the kind of decisions like closing an office and evacuating your ex-patriots?
Jen Otremba: Understanding what travelers may be in the area.
Bryan Strawser: Exactly. Again, your most important goal as a business is to make sure that your team is safe and secure and taken care of. That’s what folks should be thinking about when it comes to Venezuela.