Monday, November 29, 2010

Monday morning PR pat-down: Avoiding the TSA's perfect storm of a story

Thanksgiving weekend is over, and the irresistible catnip-story-of-the-weekend--the risk of overly assiduous pat-downs at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport checkpoints--generated 4,000 tweets an hour and more than 60 million Google searches for new TSA procedures. But it turned out to be a non-story, after all.  As early as the day before Thanksgiving, PR Newser was calling the checkpoint protests "ho-hum" and today, in the New York Times, David Carr notes:
The occasional protester was surrounded not by angry crowds but eager reporters. Under all the buzz, 80 percent of Americans traveling were still encountering the same procedures that have been in place for years....By midday Wednesday, a forlorn CNN correspondent was wandering around during a live shot with nothing to report, with a nearby keening baby the only indication of terminal rage.
Carr goes on to analyze 10 factors -- timing, execution, mystery, distrust of government, relevance, displacement, good visuals and gender (more for men than women, interestingly) -- that helped form the "news" decisions leading to over-coverage of a problem that was never going to materialize. (It helps to know that the screening machines in question are in use at just 70 of more than 450 U.S. airports, making the choice moot for most travelers.)

Carr's list is a good one to start with if you're wanting to learn how your company or organization could avoid such a "perfect storm" of a story you weren't seeking.  I'd add that several of his issues--gender and distrust of government in particular--are magnified by yet another issue: This problem involved people's bodies.  I know from my work in public health and environmental issues that any controversy involving something that personal multiplies the controversy factor tenfold.  At EPA, that might have involved problems with pollutants that could be ingested through food or drinking water; at TSA, that's about "touching my junk."  When the conversation goes from protecting you to poking you, the communications goal can easily get out of hand, so to speak.

I'm well aware that a determined group could have made this a story, anyway.  But what could TSA have done to forestall the firestorm? Here are a few thoughts:
  • Adjust the factors within your control:  The timing and execution of the new pat-down policy and screening machines could have been adjusted to avoid the busiest travel weekend, which also typically sees roving bands of reporters already stationed at airports. Taking the time to roll out new processes in a slower period also would help raise the transparency (not of passengers' images, but of the process), and thus take some of the mystery out of it. And if there are machinery options that would help the traveling public avoid this situation altogether, as was suggested during questioning over the weekend, go get them and use them--and take credit for working to protect people's privacy as well as their security.
  • Don't use the operator. Dial direct:  Social media guru Guy Kawasaki's latest effort focuses on enchanting your customers. His first piece of advice?  "Put likable, competent and passionate people on the front line." TSA would benefit in general from having spokespeople on the ground at security checkpoints. I don't mean the official media spokespeople. I mean customer service-adept "spokespeople," people other than the security personnel who could roam the lines to answer the questions of real travelers, offer reassurances, and let the travelers blow off steam without getting defensive. That would let the checkpoint Charlies do their job, but put another face between the skeptical public and that pat-down option.
  • Train those in the public eye with an eye to the public's realities:  In the run-up to Thanksgiving, coverage include a look at a pep talk given by a TSA supervisor to checkpoint staffers telling them to be "paranoid."  No words, apparently, acknowledging the difficulties travelers face--words that might have shifted the view of the agency as uncaring and mechanical. The same article notes that "no comment" is the standard response to basic questions about the whys and wherefores of the new procedures. Taking a knowing, even humorous "we're all in this together" tone would be better than the repetitive, defensive, anxious tone we heard from top officials through the weekend, and from the line staff observed in this article. The goal: Avoid sounding as if you support what one observer called the "shut up and sit down" approach to passenger security.
  • Get the news media into the tent. Now.  Carr notes that reporters are frequent travelers, so travel security stories are directly relevant to them. If the Defense Department and the CIA and the State Department have figured out how to brief reporters on high-security topics, TSA can do it, too. Giving top reporters access to some of the information and decision-making behind our security process might help create a more knowledgeable class of journalists less likely to fan the flames of a non-story--and help the agency get across the dangers we're facing more effectively than was done last week.
  • Call the fearmongers out:  It would have been useful to hear the administration officials point out, as Roger Ebert did, that many of the commentators advocating the full-body scanners sell them--and so have a vested interest in fear-mongering. Bringing balance back the the issue is part of the job when you're dealing with dangers that scare people, and have critics with nothing to lose by scaring the public.
  • Make your own laugh test:  When as gentle a funny guy as NPR's Scott Simon gets in on the act (see his tweet, right), you're in trouble. Why not anticipate how others will make fun of extreme measures--before they roll out the door?  If your proposed policy, product or next move nets a raft of internal joke-making, chances are you need to rethink it before you're the last comic standing.
  • Don't run this up the public flagpole before it's time:  The entire Thanksgiving news cycle had a just-trying-this-out feel, largely because the government's responses sounded as if they hadn't quite been thought through. Changing the policy midstream--allowing pilots to skip the scans, for example--made sense, but didn't add to a feeling of certainty. In the end, that left the White House nowhere to go but to suggest that things were...evolving, which made the government look neither secure nor on top of things.  If the vetting of a new policy about to be announced turns up holes in the logic that won't stand the test of reporters or the public, then the policy needs more work, not the talking points.
I consult for a different arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security unconnected to the TSA and this new policy, and the thoughts here are entirely my own.  If you need some of this thinking before announcing a new or controversial policy, communications planning and strategies are among my services. Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz to discuss what's next on your agenda.

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