Communication Matters - our blog on trends and events


TSA’s decision to withhold information from the media, public added to the outrage (Updated)

Plug in “pat-down procedures” in Google just for kicks. A recent search registered 290,000 results. Think the media have latched onto this one?

Sensing a growing public outrage, the media are covering all angles, from the “Don’t touch my junk” angle to the “Flight Attendants Union Upset over Pat-Down Procedures” angle. Media hype?

Polls certainly seem to indicate that the coverage is fueling the outrage as much as the outrage is fueling the coverage. According to the latest information, two-thirds of Americans support the new security measures the Transportation Security Administration is implementing at about 70 of the nation’s airports.

Yet the coverage creates the impression that the entire traveling sector is about to pack their toiletries and go home.

It didn’t have to be this way.

TSA chief John Pistole told reporters this week that he disregarded the advice of his media advisors and intentionally withheld advance warning of the new security measures. In other words, instead of working with the media to educate the public, he decided to spring news of the new X-ray and radio-wave imaging devices and  “pat-down” policies on the public and then manage the reaction.

He worried that releasing information would provide a "roadmap or blueprint for terrorists" to avoid detection by using other airports where the new technology wasn't in place. Pistole made a calculated decision, weighing national security concerns against a pro-active approach with the media.

Predictably, Pistole’s approach was the equivalent to igniting a brush fire that gets out of control. The original purpose may be noble, but if you are not careful, the results can burn you badly.

Fueled by the flames of public outrage, the media continue to cover stories of individual dissent and personal outrage over private security images. Media will fill an information vacuum with the facts at their disposal. In this case, a surprised and outraged public is providing the facts. By the time Pistole decided to start educating the media and the public, it was too late. He lost control of the story, and he got burned. Badly.

(Update: Thanksgiving air travel went fairly smoothly as the public put up with new security measures in the hope of arriving at their turkey dinners on time. David Carr makes some excellent points about the pat-down coverage in this article in  today's New York Times. As he lists the characteristics that made the "T.S.A. story so sticky and irresistible," he faults the "government’s below-the-radar rollout of the new protocol (Memo to the T.S.A.: never sneak up on the American public) that gave it a conspiratorial sheen."  I couldn't agree more.)

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