At 440 federalized airports across the United States, 44,000 TSA security officers will screen 2 million passengers. They will do that again tomorrow. That’s 730 million passenger screenings annually, and all it takes is one missed needle in the haystack for the consequences to be catastrophic.
The TSA is a national security agency, like the CIA or the Department of Defense – with uniforms, procedures, and solemn responsibilities. But unlike any other national security agency, the TSA also bears the overlapping burden of providing customer service. A duality difficult to bridge even under the best of circumstances.
And if national security and commercial air travel share one defining trait, it is that they are rarely conducted under the best of circumstances.
Fairly or otherwise, public relations difficulties landed on the TSA from nearly day one. Those travails are well known. What is less well known is how the TSA, one social media engagement at a time, is changing the conversation.
When Jennifer Plozai, director of external communications, joined the agency in 2013, she realized there was something missing. The blog was up and running and so was the TSA’s main Twitter account, but the agency wasn’t able to engage with people at scale. It wasn’t able to have an open dialogue with the travelers it served everyday.
In a world where communication is imperative to a company’s relationship with its customers, change was due.
The idea behind “AskTSA” – a team dedicated to answering customer questions – soon emerged. The flight plan: create a better experience for beleaguered travelers.
“I think we surprised a lot of people, going in and launching a social customer care program,” says Jennifer. “But if you really think about it, it makes perfect sense. More and more people are communicating on social to try and get answers to their questions. It makes sense that the TSA would be at the forefront of government agencies moving in this direction.”
The idea to create a team solely focused on helping travelers was an instant hit.
“I was sitting in the conference room watching the magic happen and it got an overwhelming response,” reflects Katherine Brown, team lead for AskTSA.
After pitching the idea and getting the go-ahead, the team had a narrow window to launch the account that would eventually serve millions.
Jennifer and her team quickly set up meetings with social care teams at airlines and within the travel industry to learn how they operated, best practices for customer engagement, and how they could all work together.
“Then came the tricky part – seeing who was willing to be a part of the team and figuring out all the logistics that came with it,” says Katherine. “I don’t think we slept that much during those four months, but it fell together brilliantly.”
The height of 2016’s travel season is now in the rear view mirror. More than 45 million Americans flew to their holiday destinations. And helping to ensure that each of these travelers got to where they needed to go, safely and comfortably, was the 10-person AskTSA team.
“We’re sitting alongside air marshals and other federal agencies, to make sure American travel is secure,” says Bob Burns, lead social media specialist.
“If there’s an incident at an airport, and everyone needs to be evacuated, we have to work together to develop a tight communication plan – while being there for people who are scared or confused.”
The Jack Bauer scenes do happen, but they’re few and far in between. The majority of AskTSA interactions involve travelers wondering if sandwiches, tweezers, and sewing machines are allowed in carry-on bags (the answer is yes).
— Regina Snyder (@ginas678) January 18, 2017
“Since we’ve launched, we’ve received over 100,000 inquiries and we’ve gotten back to travelers in a timely manner,” Katherine says.
Being able to resolve individual customer care issues within the hour – and usually within 15 or 20 minutes – would be an amazing feat for any brand or organization. When one factors in the size of the TSA, and the extent to which it needs to be regulated, that responsiveness is astounding.
“It does take a lot of dedication,” Katherine continues. “We work 10-hour shifts. We are available every single day of the year. We work extremely hard to help people in a timely fashion.”
The TSA social team has reached levels of positive engagement and goodwill many celebrities would envy.
In October, the team drew commendation from Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh C. Johnson, fittingly winning the Secretary’s “Customer Service Award.” It recently outranked Beyoncé on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 best Instagram accounts. And there’s a sizable mosaic of articles featuring the team’s accomplishments.
What started out as a pilot program has turned into one of the government’s most successful social media strategies. It has also turned into one of the best examples of using social to drive systemic changes. A PR case study worthy of HBR.
Last month, a breast cancer patient traveling through airport security had a traumatic experience. The details of her ordeal immediately went viral.
“As soon as we became aware of it, we reached out, got her on the phone with a TSA manager to talk through what happened,” Jennifer says. “TSA is now working with her and the Susan G. Komen Foundation to develop educational videos and training.”
A story like that would have buried the TSA five years ago. Today, they’re able to quickly identify and ameliorate negative experiences – reshaping public discourse along the way.
“We were able to redirect the conversation,” Jennifer says. “The news stories ended up being more positive because the passenger spoke about our interaction – letting the world know that we were working together to address these concerns.”
Authenticity, teamwork, and an unrelenting commitment to the customer have helped the TSA set a new standard for how government entities can engage with customers at scale.
“Customers First” is our motto at AskTSA, and that means that their interests and concerns are top priority.” Jennifer says. “We’re not promoting the TSA, we’re only here to help you when you come to us. That is our only goal.”
At the TSA, it’s safety first. Always. But now, bolstered by the power of social media, top-flight customer service is a close second – thisclose, in fact.
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