The Simple Explanation Behind TSA’s Public Relations Disaster on Passenger Screening

November 19th, 2010

Despite the many relevant issues that add to the debate – politics, profiling, technology, civil liberties, viral videos – the simple fact is that the TSA passenger screening fiasco is fundamentally a public relations failure by the agency.

Here’s the critical point: no matter how much the public, media, and Congress express their outrage at invasive passenger frisking, TSA continues to fall back on polling data that 8 out of 10 Americans support the enhanced screening process.  If Praecere had a dollar for every time a TSA official repeats this point in interviews, we’d be flying first-class to Fiji for Thanksgiving.

Here’s why that media strategy is totally flawed, and why TSA is getting smacked down in this fight.

Any PR firm that knows its business would immediately advise a client to use polling data to guide its messaging to win a policy debate.  Polling shows what messages resonate with your client’s target audience, so it makes sense to double down on those trends when your client’s in a corner.

Still, even the smart bettor knows no matter how many times you double down, the odds are you’re gonna lose in the long run.  To that end, the most recent CBS poll that supports the 8-out-of-10 talking point poses only two questions: whether respondents support the invasive passenger screening, and whether respondents support racial profiling.

But of those 80% who support invasive passenger screening, how many of them fly regularly?  And that’s where the poll draws a big fat blank, thus making its media utility fall flat.  We suspect if you posed the same question to frequent flyers, you’d get a much lower satisfaction rate.  Therein lies the fatal flaw with the TSA’s PR strategy.

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