Bob Burns has perhaps one of the world's most interesting digital marketing gigs. As head of social media for the Transportation Security Administration, he combs through photos of grenades and knives confiscated at airport security stations in more than 450 airports every day.
The TSA might not be the first name you associate with savvy social marketers, but it's gained a wave of media attention (and 235,000 followers) since opening an Instagram account in June 2013. Every Friday, Burns—also known as Blogger Bob—posts a weekly blog that recaps all of the prohibited items found that week.
The goal is to educate Americans about what they can and cannot bring through airport security. The TSA also sprinkles in travel tips, plus links to resources on its website.
Adweek called Burns to find out how the U.S. Department of Homeland Security tackles social media. Press secretary Ross Feinstein was also on the call.
Adweek: Why did the TSA initially open an Instagram account?
Bob Burns: It stemmed from the blog, where every week we do a rundown of all the items our officers find in the field, and we had a lot of success with that.
When Instagram started getting popular, I thought well, [this] is going to be a totally different audience than what we have on our blog. We have plenty of photos that we can share with this new audience.
Do you have a social team that helps you?
There are a few people that help out every now and again, but mainly it's me.
How do you decide which pictures from the officers to post?
I get a daily rundown of all the items—not like small pocket knives and stuff like that, but the major items like larger knives and things—and I request photographs from the field.
The [officers] email the photographs and descriptions to me. From there, I'll try and seek out the more quirky and interesting photos that get conversations going. I try to find some photographs that also can help educate the public and inform [them] about what we do.
#TSAGoodCatch – These replica sticks of dynamite were discovered in a checked bag at the McCarran (#LasVegas #LAS) International Airport. TSA officers don't know items such as these are inert until explosives detection professionals, along with law enforcement, remove the item and resolve the alarm. This most likely will cause a closure of our checked baggage operations, which will lead to delayed bags and/or flights. Dynamite, inert or otherwise, is prohibited from both carry-on and checked bags.
What does America learn about the TSA through Instagram?
Several things. One—items that you can and can't bring on the aircraft. A lot of people think that you can bring knives and things like that. Also, educates the public about what items our officers are finding at check points on a weekly basis. Some people are surprised when we tell them how many firearms our officers find, or [how many people try to] bring explosive devices onto the plane.
We also have travel tips where we'll take a picture of let's say, a suitcase, and we'll talk about packing tips.
How many photos do you sort through?
On a daily basis, probably about 20 photos. It depends on what's happening throughout the week. Sometimes there aren't photographs for the best items that are discovered—[it's] pretty much just filtering through and getting the most interesting photos out there.
Ross Feinstein: I'm going to add one thing. As I always say, we would love to have a week where we find no firearms [or] prohibited items because that means passengers are following the rules and regulations. Ultimately, we still want to make sure we're reminding passengers not to bring these items, or to check TSA.gov prior to getting to the airport, [but] the long-term goal would be [that] we have a blog that says there were no prohibited items found. I'm sure we could figure out an image to post with that. Right, Bob?
So, the goal is to not have social media, in that case?
Feinstein: No, I mean we'll still have social media. But I think all of us would say we'd rather passengers check their personal and carry-on bags to make sure they're not bringing any prohibited items through the airport.
A lot of the items we see in carry-on bags are perfectly permitted in their checked luggage—like knives, for example.
What criteria do you look for in a photo?
Burns: I want it to be interesting because I could just post a regular picture of a pocketknife—we find those all day long, every day—and it's not going to get much of a reaction.
But if I post a picture of a sword or a nine-inch-long knife with brass-knuckle handles, that's more likely to get more discussion going and people asking, "Why would someone bring that on a plane?" At the same time while people are asking that question, there's always people in the background who will never admit to it, but they're thinking, "Now I know that I can't."
What's the craziest thing you've posted?
It's hard to choose from, but I think it was last year when a live grenade was discovered at Los Angeles Airport in a carry-on bag.
When it comes to grenades, it's rare that a week goes by and an inert grenade isn't found—usually [we find] multiples.
Something I try to educate passengers on when I post these pictures is that even though it's not real, our officers don't know that on the X-ray screen. We have to send the bomb experts out, and next thing you know, it results in delays, canceled flights [and] long lines.
#TSAcatch: A Mk 2 hand grenade was discovered in a carry-on bag at the #LosAngeles (#LAX) International Airport. Passengers who bring prohibited items can not only cause delays for others, but also face serious charges. In this case, the checkpoint was closed while an Explosive Ordnance Team (#EOD) transported the grenade to an offsite location to disrupt it. The individual was arrested and is facing felony charges in Los Angeles County.
Any interesting comments that you've seen on pictures?
When we post a travel tip or a promotional photo, it's funny because sometimes someone will chime in and say, "More knives! More guns!"
But when we have this many followers on Instagram, it's a good place for us to get out our message on things like pre-check and travel tips that will help move [security] lines along.
How many followers are you gaining each month?
It really varies—it can be anywhere from in one month we increased 3,000 followers…just from yesterday to today, we increased by almost 18,000 followers.