Showing the faces behind TSA

Showing the faces behind TSA
© Greg Nash

When Jennifer Plozai joined the public relations side of the Transportation Security Administration in 2013, she was put in charge of a Herculean task: turn a loathed government agency into a helpful travel buddy.

Now, under Plozai’s leadership, the TSA boasts a customer service tool so popular on social media that it’s serving as a model for other federal departments, and the agency’s spunky Instagram page has earned it a spot on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 list — even beating out Beyoncé.

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Both are part of a ramped-up public outreach effort designed to ensure a smoother travel experience for passengers, especially as the agency introduces new security protocols amid a constantly evolving national security environment.

The latest development kicking up a firestorm is the Trump administration considering a ban on laptops in the cabins of more U.S.-bound flights amid increasing concern over terrorists smuggling bombs onto commercial aircraft. Airlines and travel advocates worry that the security measure could thrust daily operations into chaos, and the TSA would have to deal with some of the fallout. 

“It helps our TSA officers on the ground when passengers come in more prepared,” said Plozai, acting deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the TSA. “It’s not holding up the line, [there are] less bag checks, and our officers can then focus on the counterterrorism. So overall, it improves operations.” 

After serving in the Coast Guard and getting a communications degree from the University of Michigan at Dearborn, Plozai became a writer at the Air Force Pentagon Communications Agency. She then worked for more than seven years for the Department of Defense inspector general’s press shop, writing speeches and leading strategic communications.

But Plozai, who also earned a master’s degree in policy management from Georgetown University, found a whole new set of challenges with the TSA. 

The agency — one of the least popular in the federal government — has had a tumultuous 15-year relationship with the public and members of Congress.

The TSA has wrestled with negative headlines ranging from massive security lines and failed security-screening tests to invasive pat downs and employee misconduct.

“Previously, we weren’t engaging on social media,” Plozai said. “With TSA being one of the most public government agencies out there, and the nature of the face-to-face interactions — that we’re searching your belongings and that we might have to give you a pat down — there’s lots of opportunity for these public relations nightmares.”

Plozai, however, was seeing firsthand how the TSA could serve as a valuable resource for passengers. Travelers were often sending photos to the personal Twitter accounts of TSA spokespeople and asking whether they could bring certain items through security.

So Plozai pitched the idea of creating an “Ask TSA” account to respond quickly to travel questions and clear up any confusion before passengers arrived at the airport. The idea was to get out ahead of potentially frustrating or chaotic situations before they even occur.

“When you get an angry customer or passenger and you can help them in real time, not only can you make them a happy customer, but you can also identify small problems before they turn into big problems,” Plozai said.

Plozai organized and led the team behind the new account, which launched on Twitter in 2015 and on Facebook Messenger the following year. 

The year-round operation deploys a team of 10 TSA employees to answer questions as they trickle in from social media. The most popular queries center on TSA’s PreCheck program and on prohibited versus permitted items.

The team also takes corrective action to fix problems or flag issues as they arise for an airport or airline.

“Travelers are on the go,” Plozai said. “They’re not going to stop and call a 1-800 number or submit an online form. They need help in real time.”

Plozai said the team also tries to infuse some personality into every single response.

“We make sure we tailor every response to the person,” she said. “We want to be candid, so if someone’s joking with us, we want to joke back. We want to show there’s a human behind here.” 

The type of questions can fluctuate with the news of the day. Most recently, the team has been fielding a flurry of inquiries about a recent ban on large electronics on U.S.-bound flights from the Middle East and Africa — a policy that could soon be expanded to Europe.

Last fall, there was major concern over the exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones that were prohibited from flights.

“If there is something in the news, then our team is definitely seeing questions on it,” Plozai said. “So when the electronics ban went into place, we were answering those questions. Also questions about a lot of new items, like drones, hover boards, selfie sticks.”

To date, Ask TSA has doled out more than 200,000 responses, averaging about 800 questions per day — a figure that is only expected to climb with the busy summer travel season.

The tool has been so successful that the TSA is now giving advice to other federal agencies about how they could set up similar resources.

But Ask TSA isn’t the agency’s only social media hit.

The agency’s Instagram account, which boasts 705,000 followers and started in 2013, is a gold mine of adorable bomb-sniffing dogs and weird and wacky items that have been confiscated at checkpoints, including firearms and fireworks.

The effort is meant to raise awareness about what is permitted on flights and show off the TSA’s ongoing efforts to stop banned items from making it onto planes.

“The strategy with Instagram is we want to use a bit of humor and being candid with people to change the conversation from ‘TSA is a hassle at the airport’ to ‘look at what TSA found, and kept these dangerous items off a plane.’ ”

And the agency recently launched a new “TSA Cares” series on YouTube that attempts to answer lingering questions that may be surrounding certain populations of passengers who have special or sensitive screening needs.

The first video focused on the screening process for transgender passengers, which came in direct response to a traveler who had a bad experience. The next one will highlight the screening protocols for cancer patients, which was also sparked by a recent mishap.

“We have these rapid-response capabilities now when something breaks on social media and goes viral,” Plozai said. “I don’t know if there are less of them, but I know they’re handled in a much quicker way than previously by having the open communication with the passenger and figuring out ways we can help.”