TSA Pat down searches–Learn from this PR mistake

Nov 22, 2010 by

School superintendents, school board presidents, company presidents, communications professionals, Gap, TSA officials and President Obama, the public is witnessing this week what happens when one makes decisions in a vacuum and doesn’t tell their clientele, supporters or users ahead of time–You pay heavily for it on the back end.

When President Obama writes his memoirs in years future, count on there being a chapter called, “How I let the TSA screw up body scans and searches.”

Yes, the public is greatly aware of the recent cargo bombs sent from Yemen disguised as HP printers, and the public remembers the guy who tried to blow up the plane on Christmas Day 2009 with an underwear bomb. The public knows there are dangers.  And yes, the public expects the government to protect its citizenry to the Nth degree.

There are a few other basic principles that need to be brought in mind here, too.

The US public is very leery already of the government’s increased role over recent years.  It’s become very invasive.  When it comes down to it, but the public thinks, “Yes, I want terrorists stopped, but I’m not one, so leave me alone.” Americans still, even though tons of information already about them is online in Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Foursquare and blogs, feel there’s still something creepy about going through an X-Ray detector at an airport and some nameless person staring at your goods.

Add in the new rule where if you don’t go through the scanner you get the pat down by a TSA agent, and you’ve got a hell of a big mess.

Could it have been avoided?  Maybe not.  Could it have been handled better?  Certainly.  Has the administration begun doing that?  No.

Face The Nation

We were not surprised when Bob Schieffer asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday if she would submit to a TSA pat down if she were traveling like the majority of the public.  Without hesitation her response was, Not if I could avoid it,” and then a laugh, “I mean who would?”

The President

News outlets Monday morning were running video clips of the president behind a podium somewhere saying they’re necessary.

“What I’ve said to the TSA is that you’ve got to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety.”

TSA Administrator

John Pistole, the TSA Administrator was on the national morning programs Monday trying to explain the reasoning and rationale for their actions.   When asked if there was going to be any relief prior to this week’s massive travel demands, he dodged the questions completely.

Why Isn’t The TSA Program Popular?

The Obama administration presently is paying for not being upfront and open with the public prior to the enactment of the new screening machines and particularly, the pat downs.

Instead of sharing the administration’s point of view ahead of time, instead of there being some real figurehead of the administration out in front explaining why this is going to be necessary (i.e. the president), instead of someone out in front showing empathy, there is instead the complete opposite.

School district superintendents are famous for this sort of practice.  Make a decision without any input or support, take it forward or put it into action without a saturated market understanding what was up, and then getting hit with a huge backlash of public anger, further distrust, and resentment.

Mrs. Clinton’s comments, facial expressions and laugh on Sunday on Face The Nation told it all.  From seeing what she said, viewers of the show, and those who now have seen it as part of the massive reruns, likely are further angered.

Sure, the Secret Service would never let Mrs. Clinton, the President nor Mr. Pistole go through a TSA checkpoint at this point in their lives, and there in lies another aspect of the problem.

Another question the news media should be asking, and if it happens, the TSA should be forthright in announcing, is whether or not all this massive searching has led to anything?  One has to wonder if the old gag about the guy standing around screaming and pounding the ground with a stick until he’s asked what he’s doing and he says, “Keeping the elephants away!” is in play when the elephants are 4,000 miles away.

At this point the administration is left with a few hard choices.  Back off and put thousands of peoples’ lives in danger, or keep going and further anger the public.  There is not a win-win here.

And the public now is beginning to see this as a “Do as I say, not as I do,” situation.

Moral of the Story

You cannot afford to make policy decisions in a vacuum.  It takes public input.  It takes an education program ahead of time as to why you’re thinking about taking such actions.  No matter how “obvious” the need for the policy, the public doesn’t move or think like decision makers.  And once angered for not being included in the process, once the news media is able to go out and find a cancer survivor whose urine bag was squeezed all over him, or a YouTube video of TSA doing a very public near strip search of a little boy, and once you have a Cabinet secretary saying she’d not put up with it either, well, you’re in a heap of trouble.

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