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PR Patdown: Blaming Travelers for Long Security Lines Shows the TSA Just Doesn’t Get It

blaming the public, Gary Frisch, lengthy TSA screenings, Marketing, misguided messaging, Pr, PR patdown, Public relations, Swordfish Communications, TSA challenges, TSA issuesBy Gary Frisch, Founder and President, Swordfish Communications

I don’t use the term “unmitigated gall” very often, but that phrase sprang to mind upon reading that the Transportation Security Administration was trying to shift the blame for lengthy screening delays—at least in part—to its “customers,” the traveling public.

From a PR point of view, this is always a risky tactic in a crisis.  Sharing blame with your constituents, or even deflecting it to them altogether, has its place in select, very limited circumstances, like when consumers use your product in a way that wasn’t intended. But generally speaking, shunting off the blame delivers the message that you’re unwilling to take ownership of the problem, and as anyone who has been through AA could tell you, acknowledging the problem is the first step in correcting it. In the TSA’s case, they appear to be trying to sell a bill of goods to air travelers: “You, not us, are gumming up the screening process, because you still insist on flouting our rules.”

This completely ignores the fact the TSA is woefully understaffed. A nearly 10 percent reduction in workforce last summer didn’t help. Nor does an increase in the number of travelers passing through the TSA’s gauntlet, particularly those flying at peak times of day.

But nothing but staffing has changed that dramatically from the days of 30-minute waits. The agency’s public affairs manager pointed out that lines would move four times faster if travelers would abide by the rules and cleanse their persons and carry-on items of all banned items ahead of time. Not just pocketknives, souvenir grenades and bullets, but knitting needles, liquid containers over three ounces, and opaque storage bags. He also reminded the public to remove shoes, empty pockets and remove laptops from carry-on bags before they get to the screener.

All reasonable advice, but it’s pretty clear by now travelers can be very unreasonable. This isn’t by design. Few people are trying to “test” the TSA or hold up the line. It’s just the law of averages: in any large group of people, there are going to be some dolts who aren’t receiving the message. They and even many non-dolts still pack items that are on the banned list, but that common sense would lead to believe are permitted. They always have, and they always will, and no public information campaign will eliminate that. The TSA needs to find ways to deal with this fact without infuriating the vast majority of passengers. In other words, to do the job they’ve been tasked with in as efficient a manner as possible.

Retaining 1,600 workers slated for layoff, and planning to hire 768 new ones are good first steps, but ones some observers and most of the airlines see as just a Band-Aid. Removing its head of security, Kelly Hoggan, is a decisive move that says the TSA at least wants to appease travelers.

But blaming the public for 2-3 hour waits is like Chipotle saying its customers who were sickened should’ve been taking Imodium, or like Volkswagen saying its buyers should have conducted their own emissions tests before purchase.

Rather than holding a press conference to play show-and- tell with confiscated items, the TSA needs to step up and take measures to reduce lines that don’t depend on air travelers suddenly, en masse, becoming diligent, sensible people. Because that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. He was selected as a Linkedin Top Voice for 2015. He is also author of the just-published novel Squeeze Play.

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