I sat across from a friendly HR Guy at Company XYZ, contemplating how to ask what class of hotels and grade of air travel I’d be allowed to book without sounding like an expense account whore.
I was up for an executive position with an American media company that’s gotten lots of attention for its global expansion. While the job was U.S.-based, it required international travel.
Lots of it. Up to 50 percent annually and mostly on my own, supporting two dozen foreign offices.
Since XYZ touts its employee lovefest culture — with fitness classes, day care, community service and even a roaming masseuse — I came up with what I assumed would be a welcome door-opener.
“So what’s XYZ’s contingency plan for employees caught in international crisis situations?” I asked.
If this had been a cartoon, the guy’s jaw would’ve hit the desk in slo-mo and his eyes would’ve unspooled with that Boing! noise.
They had nothing.
And apparently never considered creating one.
That’s despite the fact that XYZ generates enormous revenue because of its international reach and promotes it to shareholders and creative talent. It produces in exotic locations. And XYZ has many American citizens holding business, sales, operations and admin jobs in foreign countries.
Any discussion as to whether my job level would guarantee me the Carlton instead of the Noga Hilton in Cannes was now irrelevant. Then HR Guy made it worse: He recounted how XYZ had to evacuate one of its stars from a dangerous situation.
At that moment, I wondered if XYZ would do as much for me on a moment’s notice, since I lacked a famous face or fan base.
When I met later with another XYZ executive, she got defensive and argued that since it wasn’t a news organization, it had no reason to have considered such plans. I pointed out that the businesspeople at Mumbai’s Taj Hotel last November or on the Tube in London in July 2005 weren’t journalists, either.
Needless to say, I didn’t end up at XYZ.
But I recalled those conversations when news broke that Current TV’s Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced by the North Korean government to 12 years’ hard labor in prison. And I wondered whether the drastic changes in media and entertainment — companies chasing non-U.S. revenue-building and cost-cutting opportunities, endless layoffs creating a new subculture of freelance unaffiliated journalists and the emergence of ambitious start-up companies with little structure, systems and policies — are putting countless others at risk.
Having worked at a major news organization with correspondents around the world, I know firsthand the depth of work that goes into advance contingency planning. It’s a complex, time-consuming project requiring a dedicated internal team to work up contacts, tactics and communications, then regularly update them. And ultimately, the final document can only serve as a good jumping-off point since no situation ever plays out as expected.
But the process forces a company to undertake the thinking and debate that need to be in its rear-view mirror before a crisis explodes.
We might never know what Current has been doing behind the scenes on behalf of Ling and Lee, or whether such a scenario was ever considered. Publicly, their families have been visible spokespeople, including Ling’s sister Lisa, a well-known television personality. Current, however, has been MIA.
Several blogs have mentioned (and my research shows) that its website has removed all mention of the situation. No one from Current management, starting with chairman Al Gore, has made any public comment, a strategy oddly contrary to how media companies acted on behalf of Jill Carroll and Roxana Saberi.
It remains to seen whether this total blackout is strategic or if Current was simply caught like a deer in the headlights and is scrambling.
But the world’s a messy place these days. There’s danger in Basra and Pyongyang, but also in Istanbul, Madrid and even Acapulco. Challenging times call for new thinking. Or, in some cases, any kind of thinking.
Many entertainment and media companies, large and small, are active worldwide. Many have offices dotted across continents. Staff attend festivals and conferences, crews go on location, managers deploy for a few weeks to Delhi or Tokyo to help out.
Our industries’ leaders have a corporate obligation — no, make that a moral obligation — to develop and maintain thoughtful, comprehensive contingency plans that will take care of their own.
I’ve occasionally wondered if XYZ ever acted on my question. I sure hope so. Because you can have the best employee day-care center imaginable, but you’ve got a real PR problem if Mommy’s not coming home so fast and you haven’t a clue what to do next.