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Globality: Harold L. Sirkin

Don't Do TSA-Style Public Relations

As someone who flies more than a quarter-million miles a year, I take airline safety seriously. Along with the Interstate Highway System and our communications networks, the U.S. aviation infrastructure brings our vast country together and drives the commerce that makes us strong. This makes it a target—something we need to protect.

Extraordinary amounts of money and effort have gone into airline safety since 9/11. The government, for example, brought most of the disparate agencies responsible for homeland security—including domestic and international air travel—under one roof. Part of this apparatus is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which eliminated many of the existing weaknesses in the system and upgraded security across the board, including better screening of all checked luggage and cargo.

Fortunately, no new attacks have taken place. While we’ve experienced some close calls, we’ve been both lucky and successful. The two probably go hand in hand. The government agencies responsible for protecting us, while misguided at times, have for the most part worked smart, seeking to prevent attacks in the planning stages. We owe the government our thanks for a job well done.

Still, the U.S. system of government depends on the confidence and approval of the public. While the TSA has kept us safe, some of its actions have appeared silly, unnecessarily violating our privacy and inconveniencing us. As a result, these procedures have turned the agency into a subject of often-deserved ridicule.

The color-coded terror alert system, for example, which the TSA ultimately dropped, hurt its credibility. While the system had five alert levels, we remained at orange—one notch below the highest alert level (red)—for all nine years the system existed. Saturday Night Live and other comedy shows had fun lambasting it. Is it any wonder the public came to consider color-coding meaningless?

Many people asked the obvious question: If the government is wasting time and money on this, how many other stupid things is it doing?

Baring Socks for No Reason

The TSA, while clearly well intentioned, also has been clumsy—if not knee jerk—in its reaction to rare in-flight incidents. After Richard Reid attempted to set off explosives in his sneaker, the administration ordered all air passengers to take off their shoes before going through security. It may have been a boost for sock manufacturers, but it probably didn’t do anything to enhance security. Indeed, when you pass through airport security in most other countries, no one obliges you to remove your shoes, even on flights to the United States. Hundreds of domestic and international flights have taken me through airports in France, Germany, Peru, Ecuador, China, and Japan, and not once has anyone inspected my footwear. Passengers walk through metal detectors with their shoes on.

The TSA overreacted again after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged “underwear bomber,” attempted to detonate explosives on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. This time the agency hastily decreed, among other measures, that pillows (which a prospective bomber could use to cover up while prepping explosives in his underclothes) and trips to the bathroom would be verboten during the last hour of inbound international flights. In addition, on-board screens showing the plane’s location could no longer be used. The edict was quickly rescinded, but the fact that the TSA hadn’t thought through its response damaged its credibility. What next? As one comic quipped: “We hear the underwear bomber was sitting in seat 15A, so TSA has ordered the airlines to remove seat 15A from all aircraft. That’ll take care of the problem.”

The only way the TSA can maximize our safety is to have the American people on its side. It can’t afford to squander limited good will on reactionary, sometimes silly measures it must later withdraw. The TSA needs to build itself a reputation as a thoughtful, sober, and efficient organization.

Consider the controversy during last winter’s holiday travel season over the use of so-called full-body scanners. The TSA intends for these scanners, now reportedly in use at 78 airports, to detect objects such as soft plastics that magnetometers can’t find. The technology clearly marks a step forward for safety.

But the TSA handled the new technology’s introduction poorly, leading to unnecessary controversy as the public wrestled with legitimate health and privacy concerns. The media reported that the new machines would enable TSA screeners to essentially take nude pictures of passengers, which could end up on the Internet. There were also stories about the machines potentially causing cancer because of additional exposure to X-rays.

Anticipate Controversy, Please

TSA officials appeared to have been caught off-guard by the controversy, as if it never occurred to them that the scans would make some flyers uncomfortable. They should have thought things through, anticipating concerns, before putting the machines into operation. They could have done a better job of clarifying, for example, that a full-body scan produces about the same amount of X-ray exposure that an airline passenger would receive in two minutes of flight at altitude.

Indeed, the TSA lost control of its “brand” when customers deemed the new scanners and physical inspections invasive.

While everyone with the exception of terrorists wants to make the system safe, TSA agents often go way overboard, acting like the brutish security police one expects to find in totalitarian countries.

For example, when you go through security in Canada (or for that matter in Japan, England, the Netherlands, Brazil, France, or Germany), agents say “please take out your computer,” instead of “take out your computer.” You won’t find words like “please” and “thank you” anywhere in the TSA lexicon. There is no downside, only an upside, to adding “be polite and helpful” to the requirements of the screening process.

This lack of common civility is unacceptable, especially in a free country such as ours, whose public employees supposedly work for the people. In many ways the TSA’s lack of courtesy is compromising not only its reputation, but our safety. Flyers who see something suspicious are less likely to report it if they have to interact with personnel they dislike or distrust. In essence, the TSA comes across as an enemy rather than a protector.

So what can business executives learn from the TSA’s experience?

Do Good and Get Credit

First, as consumer-products companies should know, the value of a brand depends on the confidence of its customers. Many companies have taken big risks with their brands in recent years. Consumers have grumbled, mostly in silence, as quality declined and products were downsized. Brand loyalty is a bankable asset. If you fail to protect it, you have nowhere to go but down. U.S. automakers learned this the hard way, and have taken many years to bounce back. With global competitors lining up to claim their customers, other companies may not have that opportunity.

Second, competence is in the eyes of the beholder. Since 9/11, not a single successful terrorist attack has occurred in the United States. The TSA gets little credit or respect. The lesson here is that perceptions count. Don’t assume that results speak for themselves. Don’t think that an unblemished reputation will last forever without occasional reinforcement.

While organizations shouldn’t make public relations their top priority long-term, they should occasionally move it up to the No. 1 spot.

A PR guy I know once gave me the following shorthand definition of his craft: Doing good and getting credit. Companies need to remember that. They need to be honest, make their messages clear, and tell their stories over and over. When they make mistakes, they must admit it and correct them as quickly as possible. When they do good, they should take credit. Above all, they can’t do stupid things. As the TSA has learned, that can put you back to square one.

Third, there are two kinds of change: for the better and for the worse. If a company is contemplating modifying a product, procedure, or price, it needs to anticipate how its customers will react. Will they see the change as something worth paying for or as an unnecessary additional expense? Will the change make it easier for customers to use the product, or will it complicate the process? Will the change make the product’s price too high for its core customers? All companies must change in a variety of ways. Not every change is a good one.

Following 9/11, the TSA made many changes in airport technology and procedures. Its safety record is impressive. But not all of the actions have been wise. Instead of just hating the Transportation Security Administration, business travelers should learn from its public relations mistakes and apply the lessons to their own businesses.

Harold L. Sirkin is a Chicago-based senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and co-author, most recently, of The U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance: How Shifting Global Economics Are Creating an American Comeback (Knowledge@Wharton, November 2012).

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