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TSA: Reshaping the Way Federal Agencies Communicate

Posted At: December 10, 2010 5:13 PM
by Hillary Stroud

With the holidays just around the corner, some people may find themselves waiting in multiple security lines before boarding their flights home. It may seem like a tedious and time-consuming task, but the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) sees it quite differently. When there is a threat to the American people, the communication procedures implemented by TSA are complex but necessary to keep the public and elected officials informed.

TSA was created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Its main mission is to protect America’s security through all forms of mass transportation including 450 airports, all domestic and international airlines, all domestic mass transit systems, trucking and even underground pipelines. With this large area of responsibility comes a two-part communication process. On the one hand, TSA’s legislative affairs department is responsible for communicating with elected officials, such as Congress. On the other hand, public affairs communicates with the general public.

Legislative Affairs

When an incident occurs, the primary responsibility of legislative affairs is to pass information directly to members of Congress. This knowledge is not immediately disclosed to the public because it is largely classified. Beating the media can be difficult, and often what is uncovered by the media isn’t entirely accurate.

“We all wish we lived in a world where security procedures at airports weren’t necessary but that just isn’t the case,” Russel Vieco, TSA deputy assistant administrator for legislative affairs said. “We cannot forget that less than one year ago a suicide bomber with explosives in his underwear tried to bring down a plane over Detroit. The terrorists allegedly behind the thwarted cargo attempt last month are out there working out how they will strike again.”

However, American people are not used to the idea of terrorism and/or being under attack. Other than the terrorist events of 9/11, Americans haven’t had that daily reality as, for example, Israelis have.

Vieco discussed the recent debate in the media about the balance between security versus privacy. Maintaining the balance between the two can be a difficult challenge because TSA continuously changes and readjusts its security procedures as needed.

“Our job in legislative affairs is to ensure that Congress is kept apprised of how the terrorists continue to refine their methods, even using our own cultural norms against us,” Vieco said. “We also brief members on our efforts to stay ahead of those evolving threats, while working to make security as minimally invasive as possible. That being said, it’s a partnership where we are all working hard to provide the security that the American people want and deserve.”

Public Affairs

Communicating with the public is a completely different dissemination process – one that the public affairs office handles. Public affairs’ priority is to get credible information to the media as quickly as possible.

“Congressional staffers may tend to ask more questions about data — numbers, dollars and cents and accomplishments,” said Daniel Kanigan, public affairs specialist at NASA. “Media may ask a few more questions about direction, events and milestones. But to tell you the truth, astute media will dig for the same level of detail that Congressional staffers will, if not more.”

As part of the public affairs initiative, TSA is strongly progressive in the social media movement. With timely and accurate posts, The TSA Blog earned a PRSA 2010 Bronze Anvil Award. Some posts are informational while aiming to attract society’s entertainment craze, such as blog post “Lady Gaga’s Handcuffs & The TSAPermitted/Prohibited Items List.” Other blogs respond to allegations of security procedure mistreatment. In “Response to ‘TSA Took My Son,’” TSA responded almost immediately to a woman’s false claim that TSA took her son. This timely response not only discussed the matter at hand but also included security footage clearly showing the woman was never separated from her child.

“There’s a legitimate purpose in how the agency communicates,” Vieco said. “We are really the first to engage in this way and to have an open dialogue with the public.”

Internal Communication

TSA members participate in senior intelligence meetings each morning where they discuss current happenings in the U.S. They not only exchange information but also go through scenarios in which members of TSA must decide what to do, whom to contact and other tasks they would have to carry out in the event of a crisis.

Kristen Lee, assistant administrator for strategic communications and public affairs at TSA, discussed TSA’s Web 2.0 advances in a testimony given June 24, 2010. To communicate with its employees, TSA created IdeaFactory, an interactive internal website that disseminates information and promotes discussion in a workforce of more than 50,000 employees around the nation. IdeaFactory allows employees to present their ideas on how to improve and advance TSA’s policies and programs. In return, TSA leaders are more aware of employees’ concerns through direct dialogue.

IdeaFactory has proven to be a huge success during its three years of operation; according to Lee’s testimony, TSA employees submitted more than 12,000 ideas since 2007. IdeaFactory created more than 60 national programs, polices or procedures based on employees’ ideas. For example, TSA coordinated a “Cost Savings Challenge” for employees to submit their ideas about how to save the organization money. More than 600 ideas were suggested, and four of these employee suggestions will now save TSA nearly $2 million annually.

Current Issues

Some people are in an uproar with recent media attention to TSA’s security procedures. However, its communication tactics have been swift and purposeful. The administrator of TSA, John S. Pistol, said in a testimony given Nov. 17, 2010, “Our enemies are observant, patient, stealthy and ruthless. They constantly evolve their methods and tools – and it is our job to stay ahead of them.”

Although its decisions may not always be popular with the American people, TSA will continue working to communicate its goal of safety to U.S. citizens with as much transparency and purpose as possible. According to Vieco, Americans’ understanding and cooperation are greatly appreciated by TSA.

Do you think TSA’s communication tactics have been effective?

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