Is Protocol Part of Your Competitive Mix? Why Not?

By Robert W. Frye, CPP

Protocol by itself is not a competitive advantage. It’s the professional application of protocol principles and techniques to a specific event that makes it a competitive advantage. How many times have you heard the question, “What’s the right protocol for this or that?”  Not knowing the answer can cause you to inadvertently offend a key client and possibly sabotage a long developed business relationship.  Not knowing the answer can also greatly undermine your first meeting with an important client. If protocol is not part of your competitive mix then you’re leaving yourself vulnerable. Allow me to illustrate with some examples and personal stories.

When I was Chief of Protocol for a Fortune 500 international company, a colleague who worked for a major international technology company called to ask how to handle a visit by a high level technical evaluation delegation from Saudi Arabia. The delegation was evaluating new shipboard electronic systems and would be meeting with several U.S. companies competing for their business. My colleague said they had never hosted a Saudi delegation. How should they handle the visit? I went over everything from the moment the plane landed in his city to the moment the delegation boarded a plane for the next city.

We spent about an hour covering every detail of the visit from a protocol “what to do” perspective: meet and greet at the airport, signs pointing to geographic East, who greets who first, seating plans for meetings and meals, proper passing of documents, arrange for a private prayer room, menu selection issues for Muslims, official gift selection ideas and on and on. By paying attention to all these issues and more, my colleague and his team were able to create an environment that was free from protocol and cross cultural distractions.  This also allowed the executives from both sides to focus on the business at hand. In short, everyone’s comfort level was met, making them as receptive as possible.

Several months later I asked my colleague how the visit with the Saudis worked out. ”It went great!” he said.  He repeated a conversation he had with his Saudi counterpart during the contact signing ceremony. His contact said “they had evaluated three systems that all basically met their needs”, then added “but your company really knew how to treat us. The delegation was impressed with your hospitality and your care.” In this case protocol was the competitive advantage. Protocol will not overshadow inferior products or services or negate bad financials. When a company is planning for business negotiations and all the documents to be discussed are prepared in excruciating detail by marketing, finance, legal, human resources, engineering, manufacturing and other key departments; it is then that protocol becomes the competitive glue that holds everything together.

Make no mistake; there are times when all the protocol planning in the world can not eliminate an unexpected “major” distraction. It happened during a visit by the minister of communications, an elderly gentleman, and his delegation from China. It’s humorous but makes an excellent point. The delegation’s airport meet and greet was flawless and the hotel arrival ceremony with the hotel’s general manager was spot on. Later that afternoon the plan was to greet the minister in the hotel lobby for a reception and dinner with our chairman and senior officers in the hotel. The minister stepped off the elevator and it was obvious that his demeanor had dramatically changed, but I didn’t know what the problem was. I escorted him quickly to the reception and introduced our chairman to him. The minster’s secretary quickly pulled me to the side and told me the Minister had forgotten to pack his pajamas and he was quite upset.  So what I was faced with was an elderly man who forgot his favorite PJs and all he’s thinking about is sleeping in his birthday suit. I know what you’re thinking! No big deal. We’ve all forgotten to pack things, but life goes on. No big deal. Fix it tomorrow.

NO! You’re forgetting the fundamental objective of protocol – remove all distractions as quickly as possible.  Keep the focus on the business. You could see that this situation was clearly upsetting to the minister and his focus was not on the relationship building at the reception. It had to be fixed now. The minister’s secretary and I discussed the size and style of PJs. I then asked my deputy chief to quickly go to the mall across the highway and get a quality pair of cotton PJs. Within 20 minutes I was handing the PJs to the secretary. I watched as he went across the room to whisper to the minister that a new pair of PJs was in the bag. I will never forget how quickly and dramatically the Minster’s mood changed. He was now engaged and focused on conversations with the corporate officers.  Problem solved – distraction eliminated.

Protocol’s application in global diplomacy has the same objective and outcome.  For example: Protocol dictates that the majority of official activities and events for a visiting world leader (head of state or head of government) to the United States, will be identical to demonstrate that the United States values all world leaders equally regardless of the visiting country’s size, economy or political leadership. This makes life a lot easier knowing that all official activities are pre-determined. Everyone knows what to do and how to do it down to toe markers on the White House lawn to show staff exactly where to stand for the official White House arrival ceremony. The delegation is met at the airport by the president’s official representative, the chief of protocol and the visiting country’s ambassador to the U.S. All transportation arrangements are checked and double checked, hotel logistics are reviewed numerous times. State flags are displayed according to protocol, seating in the automobiles is based on protocol’s order of precedence, official gifts are selected and wrapped according to the cultural norms of the visiting country, and national anthems are played in the proper protocol order. In short there is a correct protocol for everything that happens and the U.S. is responsible for everything working smoothly.

One of the most important elements of protocol is order of precedence. It is critical to international businesses and governments. The State Department Office of Protocol maintains the official ranking of U.S. government and military personnel from the president to junior staff officials.  Corporations dealing globally need to pay close attention to the order of precedence for their organization as well as the client’s. By doing so proper respect, introduction sequence and seating arrangements are always done correctly. Result: you will never inadvertently offend anyone.

Flag protocol is another potentially embarrassing issue. If you wish to display your client’s national flag there is a proper protocol. A good example is a press conference between the President of the United States and the president of a foreign nation held at the White House. Recall what you have seen on TV. The two presidents approach two podiums. The U.S. president steps to the podium to his left; his counterpart steps to the podium to his right. Now look at the flags displayed behind both presidents. The U.S. flag is behind the visiting president and the guest country’s flag is behind the U.S. president. No mistake. Two protocols are at play and they are different. The visiting president is to the right or the place of honor to the U.S. president.  The U.S. flag is in its place of honor to its own right as it faces the audience. The guest country’s flag is to the left of the U.S. flag. Complicated, no not really when you know the rules.

Here’s a real life example of a flag protocol gaff. I was managing a major a dinner in honor of the minister of communication from South Korea at a famous iconic New York City hotel. As usual I came early to fix anything wrong. In the banquet room the dais seating table for the dignitaries and the flags displayed behind the table were in their proper place. As you looked at the flags from the audience the U.S. flag was to the left and the Korean flag was to the right. Unfortunately the Korean flag was clearly six inches lower that the U.S. flag.  I asked the banquet manager to adjust the flags so they were the same height. The manager said that when in the United Sates the U.S. flag is always displayed higher that other county flags. He was totally wrong. The only time the U.S. flag is flown higher that another country is when we are at war with that country. The flags were corrected and I subsequently sent the banquet manager a copy of the U.S. flag public law.

Just imagine what would have happened if I did not know flag protocol and allowed the senior banquet manger at this prestigious hotel to dictate the placement of the flags. What an embarrassment that would have been. I’m sure I would have taken plenty of heat for that kind of mistake. But, I did know and that’s the difference. Do your people know?

There are times when a protocol professional must deal with the delicate task of providing counsel to senior officers on subjects that could prove embarrassing if not addressed. A senior corporate officer and his wife were invited to spend the weekend at a business associate’s own private villa in the Caribbean. The officer and the business associate were both board members of a large Canadian company. The business associate was using his own personal aircraft for the trip. The question to me was what gifts should he and his wife take?  That was the easy part and I gave him specific suggestions and secured the items. With a little research I found that the associate’s villa was fully staffed and each meal would be formal. I also knew that the American couple may not be prepared for such formal dining and may be uncomfortable which could be embarrassing. I suggested they join me for a private seven course meal at a 5 star restaurant to review all aspects of formal continental dining. They agreed.

The following week I was able to reach the officer’s wife and she was so appreciative of our dining “training” because that is all they did – dine formally at every meal. Our training session together at the restaurant made them feel very comfortable in that formal setting. They were able to focus on relationship building rather than worrying about what utensil to use or how to hold the wine glasses.  It made their weekend a real joy.

For the most part protocol and business etiquette principles are the same in the private sector and government. However the military is another world.  They have their own very qualified protocol professionals who know the different and very precise set of protocols for change of command ceremonies, ship’s commissioning, conferences as well as the day to day etiquette under the stringent adherence to rank and proper respect between officers and enlisted personnel.

Yes, the military is different when it comes to protocol, but it gets really dicey when you try to apply diplomatic, military and business protocol in a war zone.  I had the extreme honor to serve as Chief of Protocol to Ambassadors Bremer and Negroponte during Operation Iraqi Freedom managing congressional fact-finding delegations and head of state visits to Iraq. This role, planning and execution of delegation visits was very challenging. There was significant and unique coordination that occurred between the Pentagon, Capital Hill, congressional senior staff, military liaison officers and a military protocol office headed by my counterpart an Australian lieutenant colonel. There was a critical balance that had to be met between normal protocol ceremonies and etiquette and making sure no one was harmed. These congressional delegation visits were critical to our political process and protocol was one way to ensure we met their objectives. It worked very well. Recognizing the importance of what took place, I documented my time in a PowerPoint presentation called “Protocol under Fire” designed for protocol professionals and other interested parties.

One thing I did not realize is that the vast amount of experience and situations you deal with over the years really do prepare you for almost anything. You react quickly by instinct. You do not have to refer to a manual or book or procedure. You just know what to do.

During a corporation hosted visit by a Far Eastern senior member of royalty, I was managing the final private aircraft departure of the royal delegation from Palm Beach to Washington, DC for meetings with United States government officials. When the motorcade arrived, the diplomatic security officer asked me if the baron had arrived for his final audience with the member of royalty. At that moment I had no clue, but I knew that any audience could not be held on the tarmac or in the public area of a private terminal. I turned to the general manager of the terminal asking if he had a private room or board room we could use, He said yes and I asked him to go back quickly and make sure the room was ready to receive the guests. I drove my car back to the terminal and met with two gentleman dressed formally in beautifully tailored white suites. It was the baron and his lord chamberlain. The general manager who was walking down the stairs behind us gave me a thumbs-up sign (room ready) as the motorcade arrived outside.

The baron greeted the member of royalty and I escorted them to the board room where we spent 35 minutes in casual conversation. We then went back to the aircraft where the baron said his final good-bye on the aircraft. As I escorted the baron to his car he said “Mr. Frye, thank you, there are so few who know how to do this well”. I will never forget his words. It confirmed that protocol and diplomatic etiquette had become second nature to me – everything was almost automatic based on years of experience.

Knowing the right protocol and cross cultural etiquette does make the difference in winning or losing an important deal or inadvertently sabotaging a relationship. Protocol has become my passion, part of my professional DNA and I do consider it an art form.

In any situation NOT KNOWING the right protocol is NOT AN EXCUSE.


Mr. Frye is an International business protocol and cross cultural consultant with more that 20 years of experience managing high level client marketing visits, events and ceremonies and managing international sales and marketing support departments for AT&T, Lucent Technologies, several mid-size technology companies as well as the U.S. Embassy, Baghdad, Iraq, the National Museum of the United States Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Mr. Frye has strong organizational, leadership, problem solving, internal and external communications and senior level public presentation skills. Mr. Frye is also a Certified Protocol Processional (CPP).

Robert W. Frye, CPP is Director and Chief of Protocol for International Business Protocol LLC (IBP LLC)
132 Trinley Street, Suite 101, South Coventry, PA 19465
Cell: 610.952.5416    Email:
and a Senior Associate Partner with The Lett Group and
The International Society of Protocol and Etiquette Professionals, Washington DC

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