Thursday, December 2, 2010

Don't Touch Me There!

Years ago there used to be a TV show on late night called SpaceGhost Coast to Coast.  It was a strange little cartoon who's viewers were comprised mostly of "The Tick" fans and folks who used to rush home early on weekend nights to watch Liquid Television on MTV.  (How's THAT for a blast from the past?)

I bring this odd little show up because when I heard of the new TSA patdown policy I remembered a song from the show that I felt was appropriate.  It was sung by one of the show's secondary characters called "Brack" and it was called, "Don't Touch Me." It was a pretty basic song.  Basically it was just Brack singing "Don't Touch Me!" over and over again.

I amused myself the other day imagining thousands upon thousands of holiday travelers singing that song as TSA officers groped and fondled their way through prospective terrorists.  In the end, though, what REALLY amused me was the public relations fallout from the new pat-down policy and the concept that someone in government though that this would just go by the average citizen unnoticed.

Well, clearly it didn't.  And, as this USA Today article points out, the PR disaster didn't catch TSA officials completely off-guard.

TSA chief: Public outcry over pat-downs weighed vs. risk

By Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY
The nation's transportation security chief says he decided to launch controversial new airport pat-down searches without first warning travelers, against the advice of his public relations aides.
Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole said in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday that he rejected the advice for fear of highlighting screening weaknesses terrorists could exploit.
TSA's more intensive pat-downs of private body parts under clothing set off what he called a "media frenzy" leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday travel week.
Q&A: Pistole talks about threats, how far searches will go
FREQUENT TRAVELERS: Oppose new TSA security screenings
POLL: Most fliers bothered or angered by TSA pat-downs
"What it came down to was I wanted to make sure people are not subjected to additional risk of planes being blown out of the sky," Pistole told USA TODAY's editorial board. "I was gravely concerned that we needed to do something with a sense of urgency and professionalism that did not signal to terrorists that we had a vulnerability."
Pistole says he wishes there was an "easier answer" to the balance between keeping the public informed and ensuring flights are safe.
This article tells me two things:
1.  TSA has competent PR consultants
2.  TSA officials are terrible at damage control

It was reassuring to hear that at least SOMEONE at the TSA was aware of the potential PR disaster that awaited after announcing the new policy.  As a PR professional, I was left wondering how an official government agency could believe that there wouldn't be some kind of negative reaction to the pat-downs.  However, upon reading this article, I was comforted to know that there are some folks who could foresee the shitstorm that was to follow the implementation of the policy.

What is NOT comforting, however, is the response to the controversy.  If the agency knew there was going to be a backlash one would figure they would craft the kind of response that would negate at least SOME of the anger and frustration felt by travelers.  But no.  What we got was more of the fear-based, shallow platitudes that we have been fed for several years now.

Right Moves, Wrong Message:

Let's look at the TSA strategy in response to the problem.  They set up editorial board meetings and went out on a full-fledged media blitz to explain the new policy.  This was exactly the right move, at least on macro scale.

But what was the message that they passed on in all of those interviews and meetings?  Essentially, it was, "If we didn't do this, you would die!"  Using phrases like, "blown out of the sky," and "signal to terrorists that we had a vulnerability..." does little more that reinforce the fact that the TSA isn't really doing their job.  It instills fear, rather than confidence.

The fact that this message was approved by the PR folks is disturbing.  Why not instead move forward with a message that focuses on reinforcing current strengths instead of highlighting weaknesses?  A message such as, "While our current policies are working effectively, we feel the new policy will make our screening processes even stronger in the face of new threats."

Of course, there's no way that any message was going to completely satisfy everyone.  But the message that was relayed through the media came across as arrogant fear-mongering.  It told the public that we were helpless to stop future attacks without the new policy.  Plus, it even blames the media for creating a "frenzy".  It wasn't the media that created the problem, the public reacted to a new, surprise policy and the media covered it.

What This Means To You:

As a small business owner or non-profit, you will, from time to time, be forced to change your policies or prices.  Whenever you make a change, you take the risk of alienating long time customers and driving away new potential customers if you don't handle it right.

In most cases, you can make the change easier by simply communicating better.  In the TSA case, they sprung the pat-down change on the public with little to no warning.  For small businesses and non-profits, you can minimize the anger and frustration of changes by announcing the change on your social media platforms.  Simple posts on Facebook, your blog and through Tweets can let your customers and potential customers know your new policies.

More importantly, solid community outreach can go a long way towards minimizing the fallout from future changes in your business policies.  Think about how much goodwill the TSA might have garnered if they had put representatives in major airports to explain the new policy and simply be there to allow travelers to vent their frustrations?  Sometimes community outreach and PR is about listening to complaints.

Just by having someone there to listen to the venting, the TSA would have shown a willingness to acknowledge that there is an issue, and an understanding of travelers' frustrations.  People know they won't be able to change the policy, but by allowing them to express their frustration, they let travelers know that they understand and that they care.  That's really all that people want in situations such as these.

As a small business or non-profit, you can open a forum online, or have someone physically in place to listen to customer complaints after the changes have been implemented.  You might still lose a few customers, but most will appreciate that you took the time to listen to their complaints.

Change can be difficult, we all know that.  Your customers frequent your organization because they like how you run your operation.  When change happens, it makes them angry, frustrated and scared.  It is up to you to listen to them, to communicate with them, let them know WHY you are making the change so they can see your side of things.  People are forgiving if they know the whole story and if you take the extra steps to show them that you understand and care. 

So don't make the same mistake that the TSA did.  Communicate beforehand, make sure you are prepared to listen to complaints and make sure your message doesn't condescend to them or blame someone else for any fallout that might occur from the changes.  Put yourself in their shoes and use your social media platforms and a solid PR plan to get your message out before the change creates the kind of problems that you can't control.  If you do this, you'll be able to make your changes without losing business or money.