Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Ad Council: A Final Post From Ellen Howe

In my final days here at TSA as the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs (I’m one of four TSA political appointees leaving on January 20th), I wanted to get one last blog post in on our partnership with the Ad Council that supports our security operations. It’s something that was pretty important for me to get done before I left.

TSA interacts with two million people a day, and of that number, only a tiny fraction present a potential threat. The challenge for us is to get the majority of passengers through security efficiently so that we can focus on real threats, derived from intelligence gathering, watch lists and on-the-spot observations. Critical to this effort is getting the public on our side as active players in the security process. So in addition to reading blogs, web forums and the like, we held focus groups in several major cities in late 2007 to engage both frequent fliers and less experienced travelers to get their feedback on airport security.

What we heard wasn’t pretty, but it gave us insights to improve the process.

The first sessions were held in New York City just two blocks from the Ground Zero. It was surprising that people could be there, so close to where the towers once stood, and say that they never think about 9/11 when they fly. We learned the “road warriors” had to harden themselves to that possibility in order to fly so frequently. They also are frustrated by inexperienced travelers and families who slow down the lines.

Less frequent travelers said that they still think about 9/11 every time they fly. They worry about feeling stupid at the checkpoint for not knowing all the rules and getting barked at by officers and other passengers. Some didn't realize airline security was carried out by a federal agency, and many didn’t know TSA had a Web site where they could find information to help them get through security easier.

It was apparent that the participants largely saw TSA as a hindrance and inconvenience, as do many others that comment on this and other blogs. Overwhelmingly, participants were interested in knowing why they had to do what they do and said it would help them prepare for and participate at the checkpoint.

TSA had issued press releases, posted information on the web, even started this blog to reach out to travelers, but we had never used an organization like the Ad Council to conduct a comprehensive public awareness effort. The Ad Council is well-known and well-respected for its ability to raise awareness of critical issues and impact public behavior. They partnered with us just in time for the busiest travel weekend of the year: Thanksgiving. The results of this partnership were very positive – over the holiday season, we reached 41 million Americans.

The campaign includes videos that address common travelers’ concerns (shoes, ID, traveling with kids, laptops, etc.), web banners on travel-related sites and outreach to airline and travel sites encouraging them to post links to so passengers can get security-related information. Our goal is to reach people when they’re most focused on preparing for travel – when they book their flights or print out their boarding passes. The more people are prepared, the better it is for everyone.

Before I leave, I want to thank the people at TSA who built, maintain and participate on the blog – many didn’t think we could launch it and weren’t sure what would happen once we did. I’d also like to thank everyone who reads and comments on the blog. Good and bad, your input is appreciated and useful to many of us here at TSA.

Ellen Howe

Guest Blogger