By Kate Kennedy


In the current aviation security environment, that sentiment almost speaks for itself. We’ve got screaming toddlers, screaming more than usual. We’ve got publically humiliated cancer survivors, forced to remove prosthetics in public. We’ve got a passenger stripping to his underwear to prove he is not a threat, only to get arrested anyway.

All of this could have been avoided. The national uproar over the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) new pat-down procedures and Advanced Imagine Technology (AIT) machines is a perfect example of what happens when you leapfrog over the necessary step of building and launching a strategic communications plan.

And that plan, TSA, needed to come before you unveiled the body screeners and pat-downs.

TSA’s recent public affairs efforts (or lack thereof) are a classic example of “what not to do when you’re about to launch a major nationwide national security initiative and you need the public’s support and buy in.” Failure to plan your initiative’s message and deliver it consistently leads to the hot mess we have today. Indeed, without time and thought given to a proactive strategic communications plan, especially for something as personal as these screening procedures, the likelihood of a “crisis communications implosion” rises dramatically. These days, that’s also called, “don’t touch my junk, man.”

Here’s the take away for TSA and other government programs – never forget the why factor. Don’t treat your audience as subjects who should just accept the cold, hard reality of your program or initiative, whatever it may be. Take the time to explain the reasoning behind your actions.

The audience, in this case, is the American public, and they are quite an accepting audience too. Just give them the why – why do you need their cooperation and participation? TSA needed to have a definite answer to why nailed down before they launched the body scanners and pat-downs, and it needed to be presented in crystal clear bullet points, not government-bureaucratic speak. Those bullet points needed to be relayed throughout the country in every form possible – through traditional news outlets; online media; public service announcements; and via social media networks. Like a constant drum beat:

“Change is on the horizon. The threat is evolving. We need to stay one step ahead of the threat. Your cooperation is an integral part of staying ahead of that threat. Here’s how this is going to work …”

An effective strategic communications plan is the basis for giving your audience the all-important but often-forgotten why. It provides the context and framework your audiences need to hear and comprehend to grasp the importance of what you’re asking from them.  You note the challenge. You’re clear in what you’re asking. You provide the “why this all matters and is necessary” answer upfront.

It’s what we call in the PR business “mission-critical leg work.”

So how does TSA get back on track? There’s an old saying that never tires – honesty is the best policy.  TSA needs to own their failure – they didn’t roll this out properly. Recognize and appreciate the reason for the public’s anger. Rather than presenting these debated machines and procedures with a “do this and shut up” sentiment, offer a TSA perspective that calls on citizens to “partner with us to help keep our skies safe.”

Start to apologize. Now. Do so in every communications outlet and on every communications platform at your disposal. Amplify the apology. And then, start from the beginning. This should get you started:

Step 1. Here’s why we have to institute these new measures. Here’s why we need your support.

Kate Kennedy is Vice President at Adfero Group, managing the firm’s work in the Department of Homeland Security.

  • ForEngland

    All the talk in the world doesn't change the fact that what they are doing is intrusive and wasteful. Not to mention unconstitutional.

    I fail to see why the TSA or other airline security haven't used a tool that is cheaper, far less invasive and proven tool – bomb dogs. They can detect all manner of explosive, or potentially explosive material. When they indicate on a person or package you have probable cause for a search and seizure, and you aren't wasting time checking innocent people.

    Am I missing something?

  • Pensioneros

    Please explain why that Quantum Sniffer QS-H150 Portable Explosives Detector explosive trace detection device manifactured by U.S. Implant sciences IMSC and used by India Ministry of Defense-Beijing Subways-Civil Aviation Administration of China -Russian Federation Ministry of Transportation -Japan National Police AgencyInvestor and others isn't yet in all U.S. airports?

    • jhienz

      For such a specific question, you might check the TSA website for the technology approval process. TSA standards for approving security technology are strict, requiring numerous rounds of testing. Then, there's the acquisition process, implementation, training. That's a TSA question.

      A question to you: has U.S. Implant Sciences applied for SAFETY Act coverage? Without that, your company…(ahem)…the company you mention opens itself up to lawsuits in the event a terrorist attack is successful and your technology failed to detect the threat. In fact, this is a question all private sector homeland security companies should be asking.

      I encourage all readers to check out posts from Dave McWhorter, Stephen Heifetz, Rich Cooper and others on SAFETY Act and Private Sector Preparedness programs. Here's a link to a good one from Heifetz:

  • We need an intelligence-based technology-supported AvSec enterprise overseen by an honest broker comprised of a public-private collaborative body. The public sector has the power and authority to analyze data, preform screening activities and acquire emerging technologies. While the private sector holds the 'Holy Grail' – the database of knowledge on all the travelers. This treasure trove of information must be handled with the utmost respect for privacy and security and will only become available to the public sector following the establishment of a trusting relationship.

    We have not seen anything of late that would indicate there is any level of trust or confidence between anyone – to include the Secretary of State and incoming Speaker of the House- and the TSA. DHS Sec Napolitano met with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) last Jan to discuss the opening of just such a mutual relationship. The IATA Director General embraced for the first time in aviation history the concept of sharing information. It is not apparent that anything has happened since that photo-op and PR spin.

    I have advocated this issue for years and more data is available on my website MoonRakerLLC (dot) com, the Press section contains details on the topic.

    In the meantime.

    The US lost the Viet Nam war to an adversary who was living in caves and tunnels because we caused the US population to turn against our government. We are handing al Qaeda this same tool to use against us and it is called 4GW, 4th Generation Warfare. The TSA and DHS will steadfast demand draconian measures in a one-size-fits-all approach to screening while the administrator claims to be committed to ensuring TSA operates as a risk-based, intelligence-driven agency.

    Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Minh both fully understood the doctrine of 4GW and used it to its fullest effect. Are we so arrogant as to believe that our 21st century adversary has not studied what worked in the past?

    At this point establishing a collaborative body representing both the public and the private sectors and acting as an honest broker may not solve this potential holiday meltdown at airport screening, but we may be able to meet the challenges before we are engulfed by our own society.

  • Bob

    You're so right Kate. TSA screwed the pooch on this one.