Layering contacts: What does it mean and why should you consider doing it? When traveling overseas, particularly to higher risk locations or locations where cultural and business practices are significantly different, it can make sense to not put all your eggs in the same basket.
To set the stage and make it easier to understand let’s consider the hypothetical case of a US businessman we will call John. John is an executive responsible for product/service delivery at a mid-sized company in the US. John’s company is looking at a project in a small African country we will call Country X, and John is sent to meet with the potential client in Country X to assess the project. This is following a meeting in Europe between the business development representatives from John’s company and the potential client. John has never been to Country X, is not familiar with the culture and does not speak the local language. The contact at the potential client tells John in advance that they will arrange his hotel, transportation and airport transfer. I will stop the hypothetical example here, rather than going down the path of describing how John goes to Country X and some harm befalls him or how he gets put in a difficult situation, etc. That may or may not happen. The point is that John, at this point in our story anyway, is totally reliant on the potential client in an environment that is alien to him and where he has no support structure. Ask yourself: is that a good position to be in? The truth is that trips like John’s happen everyday all over the world and most of them turn out fine. Some don’t. Country X doesn’t have to be in Africa. It could be in Latin America, Asia or just about anywhere else.
How could things possibly go wrong? When you are reliant on one person or one organization to do everything for you in a foreign location, you hand them a measure of power and control over you. They know where you are, they control how you move between A and B. On the low end of the scale this gives them a subtle advantage in any business dealings or business negotiations and on the high end it can put you in actual physical risk. In many cases it will be somewhere in between, what we often refer to as the amorphous threat. These are situations where you may feel uneasy and sense or perceive a threat but do not have enough information to confirm it or feel comfortable taking action. This is a great tool for your adversary because if they are confronted, it is very easy for them to deny it.
Keep in mind that the people you are there to meet may have a very different agenda than you. In fact, that is often the nature of business dealings. In some cases, that agenda may even diverge from what you would anticipate or expect.
Layering contacts means developing resources in a foreign country that you can potentially turn to in case of a problem and creating a situation where you do not rely totally on one person or one organization for all your support. When you have multiple contacts in a location, you create a support network, however tenuous, that can potentially assist you in the event of a problem or that at a minimum, will help take some of the control from your local contact.
How do you go about creating this support network? The best way to start is by determining if you have any acquaintances or mutual friends that you can reach out to. Do you know anyone that has been to the particular country before? If so, do they have local contacts or connections they could introduce you to via email in advance of your trip. If you don’t have any mutual friends or acquaintances to tap into in that location, you can look to alumni organizations of schools you have attended to see if there are any alumni that are resident in that country. Likewise, some large companies also maintain alumni networks. If you belong to one, then that is a potential resource as well. Professional associations and trade groups that you belong to may also be a resource, if they have an international presence and membership. If you lack these resources, then you can look to the US Embassy as a potential option if you are a US citizen. Most US Embassies and some larger US Consulates will have a Commercial Officer on post. You can contact the Commercial Officer to arrange a meeting when you are in-country which will (a) provide you a direct contact at the US Embassy as part of your network and (b) he or she may also be able to refer you to individuals working in your sector in that country that you can subsequently arrange meetings and develop contact with. Depending on your role and the type of business that you are involved in, the Regional Security Officer or USAID may also be good touch points at the US Embassy for both establishing contacts and getting referrals. Another potential resource is the American Chamber of Commerce, which has a presence in about 108 countries and facilitates US business. Another approach is to find contacts in your field using social media, in particular LinkedIn. While I am cautious about putting too much trust in social media which is fraught with its own problems, it is a resource that is worthy of mentioning. There is definitely a method to assessing these profiles that is too lengthy to get into in this piece, but close assessment and the fact that you are making the approach, and not the other person mitigates the risk.
You also want to consider selecting your own transportation and/or hotel. Often the host may have an account or an affiliation with certain service providers and will prefer you utilize them but doing these arrangements yourself allows for greater autonomy. The local contact then doesn’t know where else you are going and who else you are meeting with, which again weakens their control over you. You are then free to come and go as you please and by scheduling meetings with other contacts that you have established, you develop a level of autonomy that you would not otherwise have. Your local host may take issue with this and insist on taking care of these arrangements, often as a show of hospitality and not necessarily for any nefarious purpose. You will have to handle this graciously and assess how you want to proceed based on the likely level of risk, etc. One approach is to cite the fact that you have other meetings planned during your visit. This also lets your local host know that you have other resources and contacts which may work to your benefit.
As always, this approach to layering contacts is scalable and not a one-size-fits-all solution. You need to look at the context of your specific situation and the likely risk and adjust accordingly. It does require some investment of time on the front end of your travel. This may seem extreme, even paranoid to some people. Just consider that outside of the additional time expended to do this, you will likely only benefit from this process to some degree. Even if there is no threat, you will enhance your knowledge of the local environment and grow your pool of resources that may prove helpful in other ways.