Lessons from the TSA on Communicating Change

Posted 11.23.2010

Tsa-issues So, yesterday, I went through airport security for the first time since the full body scanning machines and enhanced pat down procedures were put into effect.   Honestly, it was no different than it was the other twenty or so times I’ve gone through security at Dulles this year.  If anything, it was faster. (That might have had something to do with going through security at 5:30 am). Took my shoes off, coat off, put them in the bin, briefcase on the belt, walked through the traditional electronic portal and was directed to the belt to pick up my stuff.  Zip, zap, out of there.

There was a guy in front of me who was pulled into a private cubicle for a pat down but it looked like everyone else was sailing right through.  Which, I have to say, was quite a bit different than what I would have expected based on the media coverage over the past couple of weeks. You would think everyone going through security was having a close encounter of the TSA kind.  Not the case.  What is the case, however, is that the TSA could have done a better job of preparing their staff and the public for the changes.  Since leaders have to navigate their stakeholders through change on a more or less continuous basis, it seems worth it to take a look at the body scan/pat down controversy to see what we can learn about communicating change.

Don’t create information vacuums:  In the run up to the body scan and pat down changes,  the TSA declined to comment on what is different about the pat down procedure or how agents were trained to conduct them. There are definitely security procedures that need to be protected in this case, but no comment is a comment.  Nature abhors a vacuum and so does change. In the absence of any guidance about upcoming changes, people tend to fill in the blanks with their own stories. Most of the time those stories are far worse than the reality. 

Prep and equip the front line:  You have to feel for the average TSA staffer.  As an article in the New York Times points out, they’re on the front line of this change and have to deal with a lot of frustrated and skeptical travelers.  When you implement a big change, you need to equip the front line to deal with it.  It doesn’t sound like that happened as well as it could have at TSA.  In a pre shift staff meeting covered in the Times article, a TSA supervisor at BWI asked his staff for answers they can share on why pat downs have changed.  Someone quietly offered, “Threat?” and the supervisor agreed that was a good response.  Those kind of Q and A scenarios should be worked out before the change is implemented and the front line should be thoroughly briefed and trained on how to have those conversations.

Don’t patronize or condescend:  TSA administrator John Pistole has your classic thankless job.  He and his team don’t get much or any credit for the threats they address but get a lot of grief for their everyday work.  Still, Pistole has a tendency to say things that needlessly tick off the public.  For example, he recently called air travel a “privilege”.  The average business traveler probably doesn’t see it as a privilege but as an unfortunate necessity.  Language like that just makes a lot of people mad. 

Create Connection:  What seems to have fueled the screening controversy is a lack of connection between the TSA and the public. In the Times article, for example, the following exchange occurred between the reporter and  a supervisory detection officer at BWI. 

Reporter:  “What does that (being a supervisory detection officer) mean?”

Officer:  “I’m entrusted to report here and protect the homeland.”

Officer’s Supervisor:  “Give a real answer.”

Officer:  “I look for anomalies in the behavior of the flying public… Anything that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”

When the officer finally said she’s looking for things that make the hair on the back of her neck stand up, she made a connection with the average person. Most of us get that. Most of us don’t get looking for anomalies in the flying public. When leading change, speak in language that the average person uses. Train and support your people to do the same.

What’s your take on how the TSA should handle this situation. If you were advising them, what would you encourage them to do? What have you learned about the do’s and dont's of communicating change?