ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: TSA conveys its relevance with mobilized PR effort

A piecemeal and reactionary operation at its beginning, the Transportation Security Administration has now streamlined its PR efforts to become a proactive, informative unit.

A piecemeal and reactionary operation at its beginning, the Transportation Security Administration has now streamlined its PR efforts to become a proactive, informative unit.

Admiral James Loy, maiden director of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has a favorite, if unfortunate, analogy for assembling his agency this past year. "He compares it to building the car while driving down the highway at full speed," says public affairs specialist Brian Turmail. Given the TSA's jurisdiction, it's an odd choice of images. Given how the department came to be, the comparison isn't hard to believe. One of the first things Congress did after the September 11, 2001 attacks was pass the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, a measure that mandated the strengthening of cockpit doors, increased the presence of federal marshals on commercial flights, improved airport security, and created a department to oversee it all - the TSA. The idea, hastily executed, was to concentrate responsibility under one roof to plug those holes in America's infrastructure that allowed the hijackers to carry out their plan. The effect, intentional or otherwise, was to place the answer to every reporters' question about the security of America's transportation network in one public affairs department that didn't yet exist. Now that it has come to fruition, the TSA not only has to respond to security questions and issues, but push out new messages on a regular basis, establishing its presence in the minds of every passenger, ill-intentioned or not. A rocky beginning When a handful of specialists launched the TSA's public affairs department last March (nearly six months after the bill was signed), the experience proved to be more analogous to jumping onto a runaway train. By the time Turmail, the third specialist hired, reported for duty, "we were in full-time crisis-communications mode," he says. "Our office space was an unused conference room in the Department of Transportation (DoT), where a lot of desks were thrown together. It looked like a war room, for lack of a better term." All the team could do, he says, was return calls. "We didn't have the infrastructure to aggressively go out and push the media in a proactive manner," he remembers. "So our time was spent just dealing with day-to-day issues." Two public affairs specialists from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were brought over as PR midwives, schooling the new recruits in government communications and helping ease the callback list. Nonetheless, Turmail estimates that it was a matter of months before his department was able to do much more than respond. But public education was supposed to be one of the TSA's primary responsibilities, so the situation needed to change. Soon, the rest of the agency would be unveiling new personnel and new procedures at American airports. The public had to know what to expect. In order to make that happen, Turmail was physically removed from the public affairs room and given space with the rollout team - just so someone would be far enough away from the phones to have time to get a campaign started. "By the end of April, we were able to hold our first nationwide press conference to unveil the TSA's first federal security screeners," he remembers. "I kid you not. It was like that scene in The Right Stuff when they introduced the first American astronauts. There were cameras and lights going off, and reporters asking questions for 30 minutes. It was a great party for these guys. "Looking back now," he continues, "it's amazing we were able to pull that off at the time." Media notices the change The office may have been chaotic on the inside, but from a reporter's point of view, it was a marked improvement over what came before. "On September 11, the TSA didn't exist, so the FAA was doing all the PR," says Mary Lou Pickel, transportation writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She disapprovingly recalls a single phone line set up to field all inquiries that day. "Every reporter in America was sort of talking all at once." By comparison, the TSA was a pleasure to deal with, she says. Thinking back to its beginning, Pickel describes the press office as "very responsive." They haven't been without their stumbles, though. "It went through a difficult period when the FAA people started getting phased out," she says, referring to the two specialists who helped launch the office. "It was hard to get information out of them for a while." One year after its birth, however, Pickel no longer has any complaints. Part of the reason for the newfound stability is the TSA's third and current director of public affairs, Robert Johnson, a veteran PR maven and journalist whose qualifications include a stint as director of media relations at the Arizona DoT. He arrived in August 2002, but feels that things are just now coming together. Literally. His staff spent most of the year spread out in various offices around Washington. As of January 3, they finally came together in a temporary space at the General Services Administration, and by March they will move into their permanent home, the new DoT building in Virginia. The department now boasts a staff of eight, with about four holes left to fill. There might have been five if Johnson hadn't had a change of heart. When he was originally offered the job, in January 2002, he turned it down. "I just wasn't ready to be in Washington in January," says the Phoenix native. "I contacted them again in midsummer, and asked if they were still looking. Two weeks later, I was back." Johnson is most proud of one major change that he's been able to bring about in his brief time at the top: reversing the flow of information. Today, he says his department is more about alerting, informing, and educating, rather than responding, responding, and responding. "The big paradigm change came when we admitted we have to respond every day, but that's not all we're going to do," he says. "We're going to take some of our resources and throw them at doing proactive things. Take an issue a week and drive it out there." Johnson points to a major turning point: the holiday travel season and the December 31, 2002 deadline for installing machines that would screen checked baggage in all airports. "We took that deadline, and between Thanksgiving and New Years did a five-and-a-half-week campaign that used all our resources," he says. The success of the campaign was borne out in national headlines trumpeting the smooth transition. It was a coming-of-age moment for the young department. Improvements have only begun Now that the flow of information has been reversed, Johnson has a laundry list of issues he wants his office to start talking about. "We need to talk to people about the importance of cargo security as it relates to continued growth on the economy," he says, "We need to continually educate people about the federal air-marshal program and their presence. We need to educate the public about screening procedures," and the list goes on. One thing that becomes clear as you talk to Johnson about informing the American people: He is keenly aware of another audience. "We are creating images that tell the bad guys, 'We're one step ahead of you, and we're gonna catch you if you try this,'" he warns, speaking as though terrorists are indeed listening. "We're letting them know that we're on top of this. "So don't even think about it," he adds. ----- PR contacts Director, office of communications and public information Robert Johnson Manager, media relations Heather Rosenker Senior public affairs specialist Brian Turmail

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