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An Interview with Blogger Bob From TSA’s Evolution of Security Blog

March 10, 2009

46 Comments

When I first started “Social Media Strategery” six months ago, one of my inspirations was the TSA’s “Evolution of Security” blog.  Along with Intellipedia, which showed me that IT security fears could be overcome, the Evolution of Security blog showed me that something even more important – that our government could be open and transparent with the public, even in the face of heavy criticism.  Let’s be honest here – the TSA isn’t on anyone’s list of most beloved government agencies – who enjoys going through security at the airport?   Yet, they have a very open blog that’s advertised on the official TSA website and in airports around the country.  I was beyond intrigued – I was also excited and curious.  How did they do what I had been told would never be done?   Why did they do it?  How are they managing  it?  I immediately began thinking of ways to bring this open, authentic conversation to my other government clients, knowing that maybe this Government 2.0 thing was possible after all.

Because sometimes all it takes is one blog, one wiki, or one presentation to inspire someone else, I wanted to interview one of TSA’s bloggers, Blogger Bob, to find out what made TSA take a risk like this in the first place, how it’s been working out for them, and what we can look forward to in the future.  Maybe someone else will get inspired by what they read here and realize that Government 2.0 is happening right now, and that they can make a real difference.

My questions are underlined and bolded below – Blogger Bob’s responses are found just below each question.

When and why did you decide that the TSA should do an external blog?
“That’s an easy one. Our former administrator, Kip Hawley, requested a blog. From that point, it was about 6 months later that we launched our blog. From what I’ve heard and read, one of the largest hurdles to clear is getting leadership to buy off on Web 2.0, but in our case, the Grand Poobah wanted it. That made things much easier. Kip wanted an outlet where he could make TSA a little more transparent. Lynn (Blog Team Member) was a major part of getting the blog off the ground as well. She and others wanted a way to interact with passengers and talk about airport security, knowing there’s not really much time for conversation at the checkpoint. This was also an excellent opportunity to debunk myths and let passengers know about new ideas and procedures.”

What was the biggest challenge you faced in taking it from a good idea to actually creating the blog?  Was there any type of key event that became the turning point in making it happen?  If so, what was it?
“We had to work with IT Security and Legal to make sure we wouldn’t start any fires. Legal also played a major part in crafting our comment policy.  Finding folks who are committed to moderating is a bit of a challenge, but they’re out there.”

How did you determine whether to host the blog on a .gov or a .com server?  How did you resolve the various reporting/privacy requirements of hosting comments on a .gov server?
“All “official” government systems must be hosted on .gov domains per FISMA (law). This gives the public confidence that they are interacting with the government and not a “phishing” (fake) government Web site. When we stood-up our TSA blog in January 2008, there was no guidance on what the reporting/privacy requirements were for government blogs. Therefore we coordinated a policy and Terms of Use between the Office of Chief Counsel and other TSA offices. After a brief period of internal deliberation, we felt that we put sufficient safeguards in place to launch and maintain a government blog that was consistent with the spirit of established guidance. Thanks to Neil Bonner for that answer.”

Have you encountered any situations where something you’ve said on the blog turned out to be inaccurate after the fact?  How did you deal with that?
“I once said I was eating Froot Loops when I was actually eating “Frosted O’s.” You’re the first person I’ve admitted this to. Seriously though, there have been a couple of times where clarification was needed. The simplest way for us to deal with that was to just provide an update in the original post and then announce it in our comment section that we made the update.”

According to the Delete-o-Meter, you’ve only had to delete about 1,000 comments.  That seems like a very low % when compared to the number of total comments.  Do you/have you receive(d) any pushback from your superiors for negative comments that are posted?
Not at all. When Kip started the TSA blog, honesty is what he was after. He wanted it, warts and all. We sometimes get pushback from our officers in the field though. At times it can seem as if we’ve tied ourselves to the whipping post and created a demoralization machine. But that’s not true at all. When you look at the bigger picture, we’ve got about 3,000 readers a week and a small percentage of those readers are commenting. We fully expected to get hammered when we launched the blog. We didn’t expect a bunch of super fans waving foam fingers reading “TSA is #1″ to follow our blog.”

What would you say is the biggest success story that has resulted from the blog (indirectly or directly)?
“I think the biggest success story is the blog itself. It has succeeded when many thought it would never last. We’ve been blogging for over a year now and we’re still kicking. I think the blog has allowed us to show that we’re human and not a bunch of soulless govbots. The blog has allowed us to become much more transparent and even those who would rather see TSA fail have commended us for allowing a forum for them to vent. It hasn’t come easy though. Transparency is a tricky thing when you’re working for the government. There are just certain things you can’t talk about. And when we tell our readers we can’t talk about something, it’s kind of like telling an angry person to relax. They just get angrier. But that’s the reality when you’re blogging for the Govt. But all in all, we’ve been able to make policy changes (Black Diamond & Electronics in Bags) and better train our work force. (MacBook Air)   There are also the many changes you don’t see. We’ve got officers and leadership from airports around the world paying attention to the blog. It has to have some impact on the way we do business. There is even one case in Seattle where the Federal Security Director has his leadership discuss the blog at daily meetings.”

How did you identify the bloggers for the “Evolution of Security” blog?  Do they go through any sort of training before they can start blogging?
“Lynn went to Google and just started searching for TSA employees that were blogging. Of course, my name came up in the search and Lynn knew me from my work on the TSA Advisory Council. I didn’t receive any training since I was already familiar with blogging and had been with TSA for 6 years. On the other hand, Paul was hired directly out of college. Blogging was no problem for him, but he had to wrap his brain around TSA. We suggested some reading and sent Paul out to the field to observe. We’ve also involved Paul in other Public Affairs tasks such as writing press releases and public affairs guidance. This type of work is an excellent way for Paul to dig in and learn about all things TSA. We’re getting ready to bring a few officers onto the blog and we’ll have to provide some basic training and guidance. Nothing too complicated…just expectations, blog etiquette and vetting procedures.”

How much, if any, outreach do you do on other blogs/social networks?  Are you actively commenting on other TSA-related blogs?
“I do random outreach. Using my Google Reader, I check for all things TSA related daily. If I see something that needs a response, I’ll go in and make a comment. Some people are weirded out that I (The Government) found them and others are pleasantly surprised. I am also spending a lot of time on Twitter lately seeking out TSA questions and providing answers. Some folks have figured out that they can ask me a question @tsablogteam. It will be interesting to see how our use of Twitter evolves.”

What other blogs do you enjoy reading and why?
“When I’m off the clock, I enjoy reading mostly music related blogs. The days of reading store-bought magazines and listening to the radio to seek out new music are over. Now you can listen to mp3’s of the artist while reading a review or interview. I enjoy The Futurist, Stereogum, Aquarium Drunkard, Soul Sides and Gorilla vs. Bear, to name a few.”

Where do you see the “Evolution of Security” blog going in 2009? Any new features/changes coming?
“Yes! We are going to be switching from Blogger to WordPress. We are also going to be posting more vlogs and podcasts. Also, I am currently talking with four of our officers in the field about joining the blog team. It will be exciting to get some more folks on board that have their boots on the ground out in the field.”

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