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Building a brand for the TSA

Building a brand for the TSA
© Greg Nash

Michael Bilello was watching the news when he received the phone call letting him know he had been accepted to the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School.

It was September of 2001 and, having worked for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), Bilello had also been mulling law school. He had just returned from Marine Corps physical conditioning training in Tampa, Fla., when the phone rang.

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“I received a phone call from Capt. Jackson Reese and he said, ‘Hey I want to congratulate you, you’ve been accepted to Officer Candidates School,’” Bilello recalled in an interview with The Hill last week.

“And as soon as he said that, the second plane hit the second tower.”

Nearly two decades later, Bilello heads the communications team for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency born out of the events of 9/11 to protect and safeguard air travel after 19 al Qaeda members hijacked four planes and killed 2,996 people.

A political appointee who was confirmed in October, Bilello works to build a better relationship between the agency and the media in his role as the assistant administrator for strategic communications and public affairs.

While he’s been on the job for less than a year, his experience working with the press on behalf of the government dates back to his days serving in the Iraq War as a public affairs officer, when he helped operate the embed program that placed journalists covering the war among service members, a position that includes everything from disseminating important information to helping protect media members from enemy fire.

“It’s a relationship. It’s just like any relationship in life. It’s a friendship. It’s a marriage,” Bilello explains.

“And you have to work and you got to put time in a relationship. And you have to communicate. And you have to care. All those things I think foster good media relationships.”

The former Marine hopes to use that experience to work closer with members of the press corps on policy issues concerning TSA, a push that comes at a time of heightened tensions between the Trump administration and reporters.

In his current role at the agency, Bilello is furthering communications initiatives that predate his tenure, such as the “Ask TSA” forum, which allows travelers to communicate directly with agency officials on Twitter and Facebook about what they can or cannot bring aboard a flight.

“We believe that an informed traveling public — when they come to the airport, when it’s time for them to travel, the more they know, the less stress they’re going to experience at the checkpoint,” he says.

To maintain this flow of information, the TSA is beefing up its team of officials working behind the scenes on “Ask TSA.”

Bilello had more than a decade in the private sector after serving in the Marine Corps, including running his own public affairs firm, Centurion Strategies, where he worked closely with professional athletes on branding. And he is also pushing to implement some of the practices and creative solutions he learned at TSA, which is nearly doubling the size of its public affairs team.

“I’ve been able to take a lot of the things I’ve learned in the private sector and apply them here at TSA and see that they not only be accepted, but I think they’re fostering and rendering good results,” he told The Hill.

Bilello says the TSA must be “proactive” in its branding efforts rather than reactive, which the agency plans to do by increasing engagement between transportation security officers (TSOs) and the media and by disseminating more videos and infographics on social media showcasing the TSA’s work.

“The front-line workforce — the TSOs at the checkpoint — they’re members of society as well. They benefit from a securer transportation system,” Bilello says.

“Getting them involved more in the dialogue is key. Letting people know that they’re not just robots in a uniform. They’re part of the community as well,” he adds.

Bilello says he was ready to return to public service when summoned for the appointee position at the TSA.

“I was honored because the timing was where I knew I would be able to come back to an organization that really the birth of which came about a time when I first was called in to serve this country during 9/11,” he says.

Now that he oversees communications for TSA, Bilello, who hails from Long Island, N.Y., is responsible for crafting the messaging for an agency that works to secure aviation travel by screening as many as 2.6 million individuals each day.

Despite this security responsibility, Bilello says he fears a generation that was not alive before Sept. 11, 2001, more than the threat posed by a potential enemy seeking to inflict harm.

“My biggest fear, genuinely, it’s not the adversary. It’s not our enemy. It’s not any of that,” he says.

“It’s that we have a group of Americans who do not remember 9/11 and who do not understand the importance of vigilant security.”

The agency works to ensure that its incoming transportation security officers also keep the events of Sept. 11 in mind by playing audio of the victims’ phone calls during the TSA’s two-week training sessions.

“No one should ever have to make that decision, come to those terms, because they got on a plane,” Bilello says.

“As it relates to keeping an adversary off a plane, that should never happen again. No one should ever have to come to terms with ‘I’m going to die’ because we let a terrorist on a plane,” he adds.

Bilello says that “never again” mentality is one of his biggest motivations at work.

“I think we have an obligation, much like our grandparents told us stories, to tell our kids stories and share the stories and events of those days,” he says.

“And as they get older, maybe talk to them and tell them about how it made us feel and the course direction that we took because of it.”

Like his service in the military, Bilello says his role at TSA is also “24/7.”

“I wake up every day and I get to work and serve the country for my friends who didn’t come home and don’t have the opportunity to work and continue to serve the country,” he says.