TSA comms roadblocked by security concerns, politics

WASHINGTON: While federal officials adjust airport security standards in the aftermath of an attempted terrorist attack, some are criticizing the Transportation Security Association (TSA) for seemingly incomplete or confusing communications.

WASHINGTON: While federal officials adjust airport security standards in the aftermath of an attempted terrorist attack, some are criticizing the Transportation Security Association (TSA) for seemingly incomplete or confusing communications.

Edward Hoover, VP at Gibraltar Associates, recently returned from a trip to London. Dealing with security changes at the airport, he said the TSA could have better communicated with passengers.

“First, British Airways took me to their site where it said that on all flights to the US you can only carry on one bag. Then, I went to the TSA site and there was nothing, only a statement from Napolitano,” he said. “From my perspective, they're depending on the airlines to communicate with passengers, and they're depending on the media.”

Following the December 25 terrorism attempt on Delta's US-bound flight 253, the TSA initially posted sparse updates to its site that included statements from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Janet Napolitano. The TSA did not immediately reveal specifics of the new airport safety measures though, due to the need for "unpredictable" security measures in order to thwart future efforts, as Napolitano said. However, media outlets began reporting conflicting new passenger rules that ranged from pre-boarding to in-flight procedures.

Now DHS is reportedly going after journalists for publishing information on aviation security changes provided to airlines.

A TSA spokesperson who declined to be identified, told PRWeek by e-mail that it was necessary for security concerns to trump communications priorities in this instance.

"This situation represents the inherent tension within security communication,” the source said. “As public affairs staff, we want to communicate as much as we can with the public. But in the aftermath of an attempted attack, you often have to weigh the need to convey information with the necessity of preventing information from falling into the wrong hands.”

Another TSA spokesperson who wished to go unnamed told PRWeek that the agency hasn't been doing any on-camera interviews. It did begin radio interviews on December 29, though, and it has posted statements through not only its Web site, but also its Twitter feed and blog.

“The main thing travelers want to know is how does this affect their travel plans," Hoover added. "They don't have to spill their secrets. They could work with the airlines to... get messages to passengers directly from the TSA, and at bare minimum put it on your Web site."

Politics are also playing a big role with Republicans and Democrats jockeying over the issue, and blaming each for failure to stop terrorist attempts.

President Obama's press conference on the issue was panned by critics as too late, and Napolitano was equally criticized for her comments on the situation. Meanwhile, the agency is without a chief, adding an extra challenge to the group's communication strategy.

“The agency is at a disadvantage,” said Ellen Howe, formerly head of strategic communications and public affairs at the TSA and a current consultant with Adfero Group. “You need to have political appointee in that leadership role.”

“In this case, where the Department of Homeland Security and White House are playing an active role in this issue, you lose some of this autonomy to speak out on your own," she added.

Howe did point out that this has led to confusion.

“I have talked to a lot of journalists and know there's some frustration,” she said. “It does seem like they're a little hamstrung in terms of being able to communicate more quickly.”

She suggested that more stories like one in USA Today about the TSA purchasing additional screening technology will help the agency regain its footing.

“It's the kind of thing you want to see, talking about what they're doing and what improvements are coming,” she said.

At the Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents the interests of major US passenger airlines, David Castelveter, VP of communications, said the organization is posting updates on its homepage on various rule wavers from the airlines and information from the TSA, such as US Airways' decision to waver certain bag fees on various international-originating flights to keep security lines moving.

“We're communicating with the TSA on an ongoing basis… We're recognizing the importance of security integrity and also the importance of passenger convenience,” he said. “We linked to the carriers that had specific initiatives so customers can be aware.”

When asked why the TSA doesn't link to the ATA Web site with these types of updates, he said, “Maybe they should. It's something we should talk to them about.”

He would not comment on whether or not the association had been issued a security directive preventing it and airlines from revealing certain security measures.

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