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A failure of PR? Invasion of the body scanners

December 6th, 2010

What the TSA got wrong wasn’t the technology, but the message. At first, the Transportation Security Administration’s backscatter body scanner looked like a panacea, but things have quickly devolved into increasingly frantic hullaballoos over invasions of privacy, especially now during the busy holiday travel season.

TSA screenings
Passengers have come forward saying they feel violated: In order to fly, they either need to allow the TSA to take what seems to amount to nude photography, or they are subjected to a full frisk, which includes hands sliding over “private” regions. Passengers are wary of this, and the TSA has fumbled a key part of their job.

What we have here is a clear failure to communicate. Instead of getting out in front of the issue, the TSA trusted the public to greet it as a liberator. It let its product speak for itself, which, when your product can be said to take naked photos of children, turns out to be an inadvisable thing to do.

The TSA didn’t just miss getting out in front of the scanners’ installations; it’s fumbling the basic PR needed to calm and correct passenger grievances. Some have even called their endeavors “security theater,” like this reporter of the Atlantic. As passengers speak out, the TSA seems to blame and posture rather than understand and tweak. Countless passenger videos have flooded youtube, showing TSA agents yelling, groping and ripping up tickets. Instead of implementing and (just as importantly) announcing training sessions for its agents, the TSA has now put out a ban on all filming of its procedures.
Scanner image

It insisted that no scanner photo would ever see the light of day, and that photos would disappear irretrievably 30 seconds after they were taken. Those assertions were followed hard upon by the leaking of hundreds of airport scanner photos to wikileaks. Passengers balked, and so the TSA recently put in place an $11,000 fine for those refusing to submit to a scan or a search. Passengers recoil as they are treated more and more like the guilty party, and the TSA punishes those who push back; the cycle continues.

This is where the failure of PR truly lies. The TSA is treating its customers like the terrorists it seeks, not only at random in Airport lines, but in its statements, bans, fines and perceived public image. When instead, the TSA should be treating its passengers like heroes.

To do that, the TSA needs some good old fashioned, hardcore PR. The message it needs to spread is simple: you are the saviors here. At base, the TSA needs to applaud not itself, but its brave citizens for being so very brave and non-radiation-averse. And then it needs to thank them for their cooperation, again and again. The achievement, from a successful PR standpoint, is the average citizen’s, not the TSA’s, and that is where they fumbled. Instead of thanking us, they are punishing us.

The TSA was tasked with a difficult job, for which they have invented a fairly ingenious method of completion. But for their accomplishment to be real and lasting, they need to tell the world that the achievement is not only in service of the fliers, but (at least partly) those fliers’ own.

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2 Responses to “A failure of PR? Invasion of the body scanners”

  1. TIm Collins says:

    Excellent blog! I completely agree. The body scanners are really scary to some people, and TSA hasn’t done much to appease these fears. Such a shame.

  2. Laura B. says:

    Thanks for this article Braithwaite. I’ve been upset about TSA’s handling of the new scanners. It’s time someone gave them some needed PR advice!

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