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The nude body scanners placed at American airports may or may not be completely useless, but the way the Transport Security Administration (TSA) has responded to one critic's YouTube video (which has gone viral) is a case study in how not to deal with a social media crisis.

The TSA had little choice but to respond to the claims made by Jonathan Corbett, a vocal critic of the TSA and its nude body scanners.

In his video, which has racked up over 750,000 views in just a matter of days, Corbett explains how a simple technique can be used to defeat the scanners, and he successfully demonstrates the technique at an airport.

The response by TSA blogger Bob Burns effectively states: 'nothing to see here folks, move along.'

Poor responses to social media crises are not uncommon, but the TSA's response to this viral video is worth looking at, particularly because of the serious nature of the allegations the TSA is facing (read: the nude body scanners it has spent millions on and which some believe are an invasion of privacy can be defeated with little effort).

We're not just talking about a little faux pas, or product complaint here; we're talking about the security of airline passengers.

Here are a few of the most important lessons you can learn from the TSA's fail.

Show some respect.

The TSA may consider Jonathan Corbett a thorn in its side, but TSA blogger Burns refers to him as "some guy" in his response. Have no doubt: this is an attempt to marginalize the claims made about the TSA's security program by marginalizing the person making them. It's not effective because of that however, and instead makes the TSA look petty and unprofessional.

The lesson: even if you disagree with your critics, treating them with respect goes a long way towards gaining the upper hand as you try to convince others that your position is correct.

Take serious issues seriously.

Whether Corbett's technique for circumventing body scanners truly represents a major security fail or not (time will tell), the TSA's marginalization continued with Burns sating:

I watched the video and it is a crude attempt to allegedly show how to circumvent TSA screening procedures."

Burns doesn't, however, explain exactly why it was a "crude attempt".

Bottom line: an individual proved (with video no less) that he was able to get a metallic object through a scanner. Most of us would have expected that this is precisely the type of object such a scanner would detect. After all, a supposedly inferior technology, a metal detector, almost certainly would have caught it.

By trying to marginalize what appears to be a serious security flaw caught on video, the TSA's callous response arguably does more to dislodge the trust the people it is supposed to serve have in it.

A better approach would have been to, at the very least, acknowledge the concerns people have about Corbett's claims and indicate that the TSA was taking them seriously. Of course, to do that credibly, the TSA would actually have to take them seriously - something it doesn't appear to be doing.

Say something meaningful.

So what does the TSA really say? Nothing substantive. Faced with the claim (and a video) showing that in at least one case an individual was able to get a metallic object through a body scanner, the TSA's burns writes:

Imaging technology has been extremely effective in the field and has found things artfully concealed on passengers as large as a gun or nonmetallic weapons, on down to a tiny pill or tiny baggies of drugs. It’s one of the best tools available to detect metallic and non-metallic items, such as… you know… things that go BOOM."

He goes on to add that: "our nation's aviation system is much safer now with the deployment of 600 imaging technology units at 140 airports."

Of course, he fails to do the right thing: substantively address the actual issue (whether a simple technique can be used to defeat the body scanners).

Instead, Burns rattles off a bunch of claims for which no evidence is provided and for which the video Corbett posted would in fact suggest may be little more than PR-speak, making a weak response look even weaker.

Brands and organizations facing a similar situation shouldn't make the same mistakes. When faced with a crisis, show respect, make it clear you really care, and say something substantive. A social media crisis can be tough, and they typically don't go away overnight, but if you do these things, you'll come out looking a lot better than the TSA did here.

Patricio Robles

Published 8 March, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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