Worse Than Hyperbole

Security by Industry

​​Flickr/John Loo​​

Overpromising Security: Worse Than Hyperbole

Total peace of mind. 
Bulletproof protection. 
The most qualified officers.

These phrases likely sound familiar—security firm websites are sprinkled with them. Security firms, like many businesses, spend ample time and resources building slick websites, buying prime ad space and building a social media audience, all to make the business stand out from their competitors. For the most part, that entails telling the world about your company's areas of expertise. There is nothing wrong with that. The trouble begins when seemingly benign marketing messages make claims that can never be substantiated or promises that cannot be kept.

Overpromising on a website is more than harmless rhetoric. To clients, you may look like you're making promises you cannot keep, and that can compromise your security firm. Simple statements that may seem at first glance merely boastful can establish expectations that are impossible to meet: Our guards offer the best possible protection. We guarantee your property is 100 percent safe in our care.

Security firms and officers may aspire to these zeniths, but they are as difficult to prove as they are to achieve. Some firms go so far as to make promises they have historically failed to keep, such as stating their officers are highly qualified and the best in the industry. If such a firm fails to subject new hires to routine background checks, the company may be put in a difficult position if a client accuses an officer of wrongdoing.

Legal problems. Making difficult-to-prove promises creates problems when clients allege negligence or harm caused by officers. Such issues are unseen and often beyond the awareness of security firm leadership until a claim arises. That is understandable—Web copy does not constitute a contract. Yet it arguably creates expectations in customers and can put a security firm in an untenable situation when defending itself.

It is unlikely a firm will be taken to court simply for embellishing their successes in their web copy. But consider this scenario: An officer was entrusted with protecting a mall where a patron was physically assaulted. That patron attempts to hold the security firm liable for the assault. His attorney can make a case that the website's promise of "total protection against harm" creates a service-level expectation that the firm or officer has failed to meet.

I have seen slogans and Web copy come into play in mediations. But if an attorney argues creatively enough to move a case past summary judgment, it may move to a jury trial. In many cases, jury trials result in higher settlements or unfavorable verdicts. Claims of being "the best" or "bulletproof" might sound irresponsible to a jury asked to determine whether a security officer was negligent.

Underwriting concerns. Potential clients are not the only audience considering the promises that firms make on their websites. When receiving an application for insurance coverage, one of the first things insurance underwriters do is open a Web browser. They want to learn more about who the security firm says it can protect and how that matches up with reality: Does the website claim it protects any type of client? Does it claim specialization in high-risk areas like riot control?

Few security firms actually specialize in these areas, but some worry that they will miss out on potential clients by failing to name every possible specialty area. Still, if underwriters see a mention of a high-risk industry on a company's website, they may refuse coverage or offer it at a higher premium. It is better for firms to for​go descriptions of services they do not provide and have no intention of providing.

Simple solutions. The solution to the problems of overpromising in digital marketing is simple and low-tech. I recommend a practice that we follow at my organization: get feedback. When developing a new campaign or website, the marketing team can involve all department heads and other internal experts. Those stakeholders can review written materials for factual accuracy and identify claims the company cannot substantiate. Review Web materials on a regular basis to ensure that they reflect any changes in service offerings.

Erring on the side of caution can go a long way. Refrain from embellishing qualifications or overpromising. The safest approach is to be realistic about what you are able to offer. A sprinkling of hyperbole may not hurt, but make sure any claims are grounded in reality. Consider how many companies claim to be the "largest" in their specialty area. Realistically, only one company can be the largest, but dozens claim to be. "One of the largest" is a more realistic assertion.

Claims involving Web copy and marketing may be covered under a commercial general liability insurance policy. But other coverages may or may not apply to specific problems caused by false claims in Web copy. For example, if a firm's website indicates that officers undergo thorough background screening, but they do not, the firm may be liable if an officer is involved in a theft. This may trigger crime coverage, if you carry it.

The ubiquity of business websites has made it easier to connect with potential clients, but it also makes it easier for the public to fact-check marketing messages. Every security firm has its strengths. By focusing on those unique fortes, firms can attract the right kind of clients without attracting difficult court cases and high settlements in the event of a lawsuit.

Tory Brownyard is the president of Brownyard Group, a program administrator that pioneered liability insurance for security guard firms more than 60 years ago. He can be reached at tbrownyard@brownyard.com or 1-800-645-5820.