38 days later – the G4S Olympic Security news arc

Friday July 6th 2012 was a good day for the world’s second-largest private sector employer, G4S, as Ian Horseman Sewell, managing director of Global Events, outlined his company’s prospects to Neil Maidment of Reuters in an interview.

Not only did he assert that the security firm was “absolutely on track to deliver” on the London Olympics, but added that “If there was a similar event going on in Australia, I would be bullish that we could deliver that at the same time”. He also noted that favourable media exposure could attract many more customers, but warned that “the sensitive, high-profile nature of security meant [G4S] ran the risk of its image being damaged if problems occurred”.

Unlucky guess, or did he know that there was a storm coming? Whatever the case, two days later the UK Sunday papers ran with the story that the firm being paid £300m to guard the Olympics had “yet to fully train or accredit thousands of security guards needed to protect the games from terrorist attack” (The Observer). On this occasion, an unnamed spokesman from G4S announced “We have had some challenges on workforce scheduling this week”.

From that moment on, the story snowballed, with the UK government announcing that it would bring in the army to cover the shortfall, in some cases with troops not long returned from Afghanistan, which touched a nerve with the British papers. Unfortunately for G4S, in the wake of the staff shortage fiasco, the worldwide media – both traditional and social – dug into every aspect of G4S’ wide-ranging global reach, and found tales of potential/alleged corporate mismanagement in several areas, including:

• the ability to collect data on UK offenders’ abuse of electronic tags, but not report on them

• investigative journalist Lee Hazledean, training undercover as a security guard for the London Olympics with G4S, alleging severe security issues on local radio and beyond

• alleged security breach by Daily Star journalist of royal Olympic venue with no resistance

• the death of Angolan refugee, Jimmy Mubenga, in G4S custody, and subsequent concerns about outsourcing local policing

• an international campaign against G4S to halt its “unlawful and criminal activities”

• reports that teenagers were being recruited and inadequately trained as Olympic security officers (Daily Mail, July 11th)

Satirists and bloggers had a field day, using the G4S situation as a catalyst for fomenting verbal revolt, as government figures tried to control the message. Jeremy Hunt, UK Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, was ‘applauded’ by BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show presenters as having “fulfilled his remit to fail in all areas of his job description”, and by blogger Tom Pride for implying that “Being Rubbish is ‘Completely Normal’.

A little more than a week after the initial story broke, on Tuesday 17th, G4S’ CEO Nick Buckles was boosting (bad) global exposure for his company by merely apologising to a UK parliamentary committee, rather than offering solutions, and continuing to claim his firm’s £57m fee. The phrase “humiliating shambles” had to be translated into at least 30 languages to satisfy international media headlines over the subsequent days. G4S’ share price duly crumbled.

Media coverage levels rose again on July 24th, following the announcement that yet more British and Commonwealth troops would be deployed to bridge the security gap left by G4S as the opening ceremony neared. As the Khaleej Times (UAE, July 26th) summed it up, security was always going to be a major news issue with this XXX Olympiad.

Now, at the end of the Games, the media spotlight seems to be moving away from the tribulations of G4S as overall security has been effective and the stand-in troops appear to be a “surprise hit” with the crowds (London Evening Standard, August 2nd). The firm’s share price, a mirror image of coverage volumes over the past 38 days, has regained 20 points from its July 17 low. If the good mood of the public and papers continues, G4S may well weather this particular storm and find the space to rebuild its reputation.

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