03/15/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated May 15, 2012

What's in a Name? That Which We Call a Roseate PMSC

One thing I've long noted about the companies who work in the private military and security field is how vague they are when it comes to describing what they do. In fact, most of them don't even call themselves private military and security firms. Instead, as one industry trade group puts it, they work on international stability operations.

Of course, in part, this reflects nothing more than an attempt at coming up with an appealing brand name. As Shakespeare would undoubtedly write if he were alive today:

What's in a name? That which we call a PMSC
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Understandably, companies who provide armed guards don't want to be confused with colonial-era mercenaries. This has been quite evident for several years. For details, see Robert Young Pelton's 2006 book, Licensed To Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror.

Another reason is economic. As long as you are not specific about what you do then you can plausibly claim to be qualified to do just about anything. Plus, given that many PMSC are frequently divisions of much larger corporations they have access to the financial and administrative resources that enable them to go and hire the people with the necessary skill sets to do just about anything. It's the old task organization model; similar to the way Mr. Phelps would organize his Mission Impossible teams.

Doubtlessly they have all spent lots of money on communications consultants and PR folks who, I imagine, have told them to keep it nonspecific and upbeat. Don't talk about how we provide guys with guns to help keep a client alive. Instead, talk about how the company is working to help bring about a better tomorrow for the entire world.

Still the vagueness, regardless of how deliberate it may be, of many firms has often bugged me. Perhaps it is because I'm a Capricorn but I prefer directness. And I think most people actually do understand that the world being what it is that there is a need for guys with guns.

You're a "risk management company"? Oh, you mean you help insurers decide whether to issue a life insurance policy. Uh, no; you are actually a "leading private security and risk management company." That language comes from the Aegis Defence website, a British PSC. Aegis should get credit for at least mentioning that it does "private security work" even if it goes on to say that it provides "a comprehensive service covering all areas of the globe, combining the proven track record and expertise to enable our clients -- multinationals, governments, international agencies and many others -- to minimise risk and maximise opportunity."

For something vaguer, DynCorp International says it is "a global government services provider in support of U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives, delivering support solutions for defense, diplomacy, and international development."

Yes, well, that certainly clears things up. Thanks for the clarification.

I don't wish to be too critical here. People who study PMSC issues have long argued about how to classify them. Still, trying to be all things to all people has its disadvantages. As Frederick the Great famously said, "He who defends everything defends nothing."

So is there a way to pin it down? This brings us to a 2010 paper by John Gainer, then a Texas State University student working towards his Masters of Public Administration degree. His felicitously titled paper, The business of war: A content analysis of private military companies' websites, described the different services offered on websites by a high profile sample of private military companies.

Before going further, let's acknowledge that his survey of companies was limited. He used the member companies of the then-named IPOA, an industry trade group, for his sample of 44 companies. Today, one can find several hundred companies operating around the world.

Still, some of Gainer's points are well worth noting. For example:

First, there is no exhaustive list or database of PMCs. It is incredibly difficult to estimate the number of PMCs that make up the industry. Second, by forming as corporate structures, PMCs have the ability to change their names or move headquarters, both of which can affect research. Last, PMC research may be limited because of proprietary rights or security concerns.

Another finding has to do with the issue of corporatization. Remember that is the fact that PMSC firms are corporate entities that most distinguishes them from mercenaries. Gainer found:

Corporatization also makes opportunities available to PMCs if their brand becomes a public relations liability. For PMCs, one of the key factors in their ability to gain contracts, and consequentially, profits, is their reputation. This advantage has not gone unutilized in the industry. Just as retail giant Philip Morris changed its name to Altria to distance itself from tobacco-related PR, Blackwater Worldwide changed its name to Xe in 2009. The timing of Blackwater's name change was shortly after the State Department announced it would not renew a major security contract in Iraq.

Another finding shows that it is in the interest of governments who use PMSC services to get better clarity about the services a firm offers. Gainer wrote, "If policymakers understand the services most commonly provided, they have a greater opportunity to implement an effective regulatory framework."