Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA's Original Sin: Deciding Not to Communicate

Bad leaders tend to be bad communicators. A decision made with the best of intentions can fail if it's not communicated well to key stakeholders. Lost in the rage about new TSA security pat-downs and body scans is that TSA is not an agency that is being led well. John Pistole is head of the TSA and he's both a bad leader and bad communicator.

Pistole admitted that it was his decision not to inform the public about the new security procedures. He called it a "risk-based" decision that kept terrorists from knowing what the TSA was doing, where they were doing it and to whom they were doing it. Pistole even admits he ignored advice to communicate.

The terrorists who wish us ill are adaptable and clever. They seek to exploit weaknesses. It seems an easy solution to limit public information so that weaknesses can go unexploited. Keeping terrorists off-balance by not telling the public basic information probably sounded like a great plan in the meeting room in DC. It stood little chance of success.

Since there's this thing called the internet and people use it to communicate in real time, Pistole was able to keep the new pat-down procedures quiet right up to the time that TSA began to implement them on real human beings. Unless his goal was to prevent a terrorist attack the first two weeks in November, his plan had no chance of succeeding except in pissing off a substantial part of the flying public.

Pistole also told reporters that he planned on educating the public after most of the rollout of the new procedures was complete. Except you can't educate people when they are furious with you. One of the best blogs about flying is Flying with Fish. Author Steven Frischling has a complete breakdown of where the full body scanners are and how likely people are to be subject to the new scans. Great context to be sure, but this is the kind of thing TSA should have posted on its website before it rolled out this program.

TSA could have been communicating these important changes to the public and kept the appropriate amount of operational vagueness to keep bad guys off balance. In fact, I bet TSA has dozens of communicators that advised doing just that. Why not let them do their jobs? The decision not to communicate has created a huge distraction for the frontline screeners. Now, they gird themselves every day for verbal assaults from the people they are trying to protect. One can argue that probably makes them less effective at their job.

With one decision Pistole failed twice. He alienated a substantial portion of the public and made it less likely his frontline people will succeed in their primary mission.

Communicating this change effectively may not have prevented the backlash. Not communicating until it was a crisis made everything worse.

Why exactly does he still have his job?

Bill Salvin

Thursday, November 18, 2010

TSA's Image(ing) Problem

The controversy over TSA's Advanced Imaging Technology (aka Naked Body Scanners) and Enhanced Pat-Downs (aka Government-sponsored sexual assault) is seemingly getting worse by the hour. Every day we are treated to new horror stories from people who believe the new security measures are too invasive and offer little enhancement to security. Newspaper columnist and humorist Dave Barry endured a fondling from one TSA agent while another agent stood by and told Barry what a huge fan he was of his work. Surreal security Kabuki at its finest.
From a communicators point of view, the TSA has done a poor job of selling the cost/benefit case to the American public. The public has judged this to be a bad deal. Here's the public's perception of TSA's offer: TSA's chance of catching a terrorist is so low and the price in shame, humiliation and privacy invasion so high that it's not worth it. TSA should figure out a way to tell us more. Give us better context. Or, come up with an option that allows them to assess the risk I pose to air safety without touching me or taking a naked image of me.

People understand that terrorists target airplanes. But people also understand that the chance of terrorists being on their plane is extremely low. In effect, the public is telling the TSA that they would rather a terrorist attempt to take down an airliner than suffer the indignity of the new procedures. The public tells us this is okay with them because they'll beat the snot out of anyone who tries to hijack a plane that they're on. I fly a lot. I know I'd step up.

TSA is in a tough spot. The explosive PETN, which was used in the Christmas Day Underwear Bombing attempt and in the recent UPS/FED EX cagro bomb plot is not detected by metal detectors or conventional pat downs. Terrorists have also implanted bombs in suicide bombers body cavities which is undetectable even with the new imaging that's so controversial. Plus, a successful terrorist attack would bring a world of hurt down on the agency in the form of Congressional investigations, cable news vivisection and various other public shamings.

What I don't hear from anyone at TSA is any sensitivity regarding how unnerving it can be to have a stranger place their hands on their private parts. No understanding that, as a father, it is criminal to allow someone to touch my daughter or son in that way while I stand by watching. No sense of common decency that seems to give any of the screeners pause before they diddle a nun.

The public doesn't think this is fair because TSA has given them only two choices: have a naked scan done of your body or get felt up. TSA head John Pistole told CNN this week that, "Security is a shared responsibility." That's clearly not the case since TSA decides what the rules are and they apply until they don't. They don't give a passenger the choice to opt out of screening. There is no appeal. Submit or don't fly. That's not the definition of "shared" I learned in kindergarten.

There is something fundamentally anti-American about it. TSA has claimed in the past that many of their successes can't be told. That's fine, but the lack of factual, objective information about threats leaves the public with one choice: trust the government. We don't right now. The reason no one believes the TSA when it says the images won't be stored is that another federal agency stored 35,000 images. Plus, we know that one of these images could be good evidence in court, so there has to be a way to save them. When TSA says otherwise, we think they are lying.

The public wants TSA to stop terrorists from attacking airplanes but we're skeptical of TSA's ability to do that. Skeptical because all of the measures put in place were taken defensively. One guy tried to blow up his shoes so now everyone has to take off their shoes. Some people in England were going to make liquid bombs so no one can carry liquids any more.

We may be a skeptical public when it comes to TSA, but we do want the agency to succeed. We just think they should protect us from the next threat instead of the last.

Bill Salvin