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Global Issues: Contingency Planning

Let's say you're the vice president of sales for a large global company, one deriving a significant percentage of its annual revenue from foreign sales. The company has over 200 expatriate executives residing abroad, along with roughly 300 U.S.-based sales staff who travel extensively to some 40 countries.

Let's now pretend it's a Tuesday morning, and you're just sitting down to your first latte of the day when the phone rings. A company executive from Houston is on the line, reporting there's just been a massive earthquake in Mexico City. At least 5,000 people have been killed.

Taking a deep breath, you do a quick mental inventory: You have a 100,000-sq. ft. plant in Mexico City, 15 expatriates, and over 100 Mexican employees. So what's your first order of business? What if there's no cellular service functioning in Mexico City? What if e-mail service has been interrupted? What now?

Every year, hundreds of global companies face crises abroad. It may range from an executive who has disappeared, to an expatriate who has been shot in a carjacking, to an employee who has been raped, to a labor strike that shuts down production, to a natural disaster that stops communications and ceases operations, to a car bombing at a hotel your company routinely uses for its travelers.

It's also worth noting the courts are increasingly holding global companies accountable for taking reasonable steps to warn, inform, train, and protect employees (including local nationals) who are vulnerable to such threats. As such, any discussion of contingency planning should begin with this question: Do you have the processes in place to ensure your own employees are so warned, informed, trained, and protected?

Another good question to ask yourself: Does your company have centralized airline ticketing, so you know what staff is in which countries—and what their travel status isȄat any given time? Conversely, if your company permits travelers and expatriates to make their own travel arrangements via the Internet and pay for them with a corporate credit card, it may be impossible to know this information.

How many of your expatriates and frequent international travelers have registered their travel with the U.S. State Department? All? Some? None? This is an area where you need to ensure no one receives a ticket until they have registered their travel with the State Department (or their own embassy, if they aren't U.S. citizens). Registration is completed electronically (at www.travel.state.gov) before the individual commences travel.

Do not underestimate the importance of the above action. During the 2006 hostilities between Hezbollah and Israeli forces in Lebanon, some 60,000 foreigners were trapped in Beirut—many of them simply because their embassies were unaware of their presence in Lebanon.

Other reasons to register your travel involve your government being able to reach you in case of an emergency or death in your family, or in the event of natural disasters in the country you are visiting.

On a related note, all governments (including the U.S.), have comprehensive emergency action plans enabling them to notify, advise, and assist in the evacuation of their citizens from countries undergoing political unrest, natural disasters, or major turbulence.

Another good question: Does your company have a comprehensive and up-to-date international crisis management plan designed to quickly resolve an international crisis abroad? If you don't, you're obviously not prepared for a number of foreseeable emergencies that could happen at any time.

Unfortunately, failure to have such a plan will become apparent to your employees (resulting in morale issues) and may well put your staff at risk of events that are irreversible. Also, by not being prepared for such crises as we've discussed in this column, it may take much longer for your company to return to normal operations, dramatically increasing your overhead.

How about this one? At this very moment, do you have the capability to simultaneously e-mail or text a message to all of your international expatriates and travelers in the event of a major emergency? If not, this could be an inhibitor to promptly informing staff of a situation that may well influence their safety and security.

Hopefully the points discussed above have provided your company with some food for thought. Regardless of where you have expatriates in place or frequent travelers operating, prudence would dictate you have the following policies, procedures and processes in place:

• A comprehensive and current international crisis management plan.

• International security information and briefings for expatriates, their families, and international travelers.

• A local procedure in each country outlining how expatriates, their families, local staff, and visiting company travelers are to be notified of an impending threat or emergency.

• Centralized ticketing for all company travelers, so that you know at any given time where all of your employees are (by country).

• A means of simultaneously e-mailing or texting all expatriates and travelers to inform them of a situation that may put company staff at risk, and/or instructions to take specific action.

• Registration of all expatriate and traveler itineraries with the U.S. State Department (or appropriate embassies for non-U.S. staff).

• International medical and evacuation assistance (including political evacuation) for all expatriates, their families, and international travelers.

• In countries where political unrest, terrorism, and natural disasters are foreseeable, companies should establish satellite phones, single side-band (SSB), and/or VHF/UHF radio systems in the event local phone and cellular service is interrupted.

• Utilization of qualified security consultants who can assist in preparing international crisis management plans, conducting briefings, and responding to international crises where appropriate.

Ed Lee is a retired U.S. State Department diplomat and Regional Security Officer (RSO) who spent most of his life abroad, protecting U.S. diplomats and American business executives. He can be reached at ed@sbrisksolutions.com.