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.