Probing the TSA Mess: Four PR Tips To Stop A Bad Situation From Getting Worse

O.K. quiz time.  What’s the one job you wouldn’t take if it were offered to you tomorrow?

Yes, yes, I know.  Gorilla milker and phone book proofer are on the list, but I’m sure there were plenty of folks who immediately thought….

Not everyone likes TSA's screening procedures

TSA airport screener.

The TSA, or Transportation Security Administrations, has been getting a lot of grief lately for their “thorough” body search policy at airports.  Now, I’m not here to “probe” into whether the TSA deserves the criticism they’re getting for the invasive pat downs.   What I wanted to do was use the TSA to illustrate how a poor public relations response can turn a bad situation into an unbridled disaster.

It’s a lesson that every business really needs to learn.

The problem is that with the growth of social media and all the access that goes with it, businesses are becoming increasingly susceptible to getting bad publicity.  It happens a lot.   What most businesses don’t understand, however, is that it’s not the initial bad press that gets a company in trouble, but their response to it.  A lot of times that means simply making sure you don’t do anything to make matters worse.

Here are four tips to stop a business from making a bad situation worse.

TAKE THE HIGH ROAD

Put yourselves in the TSA’s position for a moment.  You are in charge of every airport in the country.  You must screen millions of passengers, many of whom are just plain disagreeable, every day.  And now you have to read daily accounts of people who have had nightmarish experiences at the hands of some of your agents.

Your first instinct is to want to fight back.  You want to defend yourself.  You want to shove everything back at your “know-nothing, stupid, bus riding” critics and make them eat their words.

Don’t.  You’ll regret it.

Just ask TSA Head John Pistole.

John Pistole, Head of TSA

What a business needs to understand is that most folks take the side of the perceived victim when there is a dispute.  TSA is NOT the victim, the passengers are.  It may not be fair, but its reality.  Maligning the victim and trashing their supporters will only make you look worse.

Instead, take the high road.

Had the TSA showed any sympathy to the people having problems with the invasive screenings, rather than say “digging their heels in,” there wouldn’t have been quite the backlash.

SHOW WE’RE ON THE SAME SIDE

One of the TSA’s worst mistakes has been to turn the issue of invasive screening into an “us-versus-them” situation.  By doing this, the TSA has framed themselves as the opponent rather than as a supporter of the flying public.  Not very wise.  The TSA would have been better served to take this type of stance.

We understand and sympathize with everyone regarding the inconvenience of the increased screenings.  Believe us, we hate it as much as you do.  We feel badly about the increased screenings, but we would much rather feel badly about that than about sending hundreds of people into harm’s way because we chose convenience over safety.

Please.  We need your help.

If any of our agents are not treating you with respect and professionalism let us know.  We are all in this together.

Thank you for your patience and support.

Letting people understand that you’re on their side helps to diffuse many situations.

NO VENDETTAS

In many cases a business will want to “punish” the people who are causing them problems.  It may feel good, but acting on vendettas might be the worst thing to do.  Take TSA.  There are reports that TSA workers will start a work slowdown to show their displeasure about screening criticisms and a possible protest over Thanksgiving.

I can’t think of  a worse idea.

If people are angry with you, treating them worse won’t help.  Furthermore, if you find that you have employees who are acting on vendettas and you don’t get rid of them, your business will be looked at as having been in on it.

You must treat everyone even better than you normally would.  Especially the people complaining about your business.

BE OF GOOD CHEER

Let’s face it.  Screenings aren’t going to go away.  What doesn’t help, however, is when the TSA agents are grumpy, stern, and rude.  This just feeds into the public’s perception about the TSA as an opponent, rather than a partner in safety.

If you are pleasant, (not annoyingly cheerful or acting like a joker) people will be much more patient.  If you are already dealing with a bad situation, showing some understanding that the customer is being inconvenienced will let people know that you care about them.

In short, people want to know that you care when your business in making their life harder.

TSA didn’t do this.  Instead, they dug in their heels, threatened work slowdowns, and acted like they didn’t care about the passengers they were working with.  And because of that, they made a bad situation much, much worse.

So take a lesson from the TSA.  Everyone gets bad publicity, it’s how you respond to it that will truly help, or hurt your business.

*(If you’re interested in my services you can go here for more information.)

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  1. Stephanie Dhue’s avatar

    TSA could take some lessons from BP fund administrator Ken Feinberg. He sounds very sympathetic to people who have been hurt, acknowledges some people won’t be able to make a claim, and stresses that he’s not perfect, but is working very hard to make it right.
    Hard to imagine that the TSA is getting a much harder time now than the man handling the BP claims.

    Reply

  2. Jack H.’s avatar

    The larger problem for the TSA is that even if they took the tact you suggested there were others in government outside of TSA control that were making combative statements. How could they stop someone like Hillary Clinton who came down on them?

    Reply

  3. Steven Spenser’s avatar

    Actually, the threatened slowdowns are not by TSA staffers, but by holiday travellers hoping to make a snarled mess of airport screening during the busiest flying week of the year. It’s a protest *against* TSA and its new procedures–not *by* TSA in reaction to criticism.

    Think about it: When the TSA needs all the public support it can get, why would it actually do anything to make the flying public *more* disgusted at the agency?

    This started as a rumor by a Fox News station, which interviewed a TSA official who responded, “We have no indication from our dedicated and professional workforce that this will occur.” See http://bit.ly/eBfeR0

    Reply

    1. DeVol’s avatar

      Thank you for your comment Steven. I just wanted to clarify a point if I may. I did know about the passenger slowdown, but I was focusing on the TSA and their PR.

      As to your point about the starting as a rumor by the FOX News affiliate, they were not the only ones to be asking this question. As you can see by this Google search.

      It was obviously a big enough issue for a reporter to ask a TSA official who felt it was important enough to respond.

      I’m just happy that neither protest materialized.

      Thank you for stopping by. Have a happy Thanksgiving

      Reply

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