Who you gonna call if you have a question about TSA?
Hint, the answer is not Ghostbusters.
For an agency with more than 60,000 employees, a small but mighty select group of seven are the faces and voices of TSA.
TSA’s media spokespeople are who news reporters call if they have a question.
These agency experts along with two press secretary assistants, communications strategist and a Law Enforcement/Federal Air Marshal Service liaison know their stuff, all the ins and outs of TSA, and relay TSA’s key messages to the traveling public, mostly through the news media across the country.
“My primary role is to explain the policies and procedures of TSA’s security operations to the public,” said TSA Pacific Spokesperson Lorie Dankers, who covers 11 western states and three Pacific U.S. territories. “Sometimes, that is to reporters, other times it is to members of the public who reach out to me personally or to TSA Public Affairs. I am responsible for proactively publicizing TSA accomplishments, the good work of our employees and protecting the reputation of the agency whenever possible.”
Fellow Spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said she generally responds to media inquiries, conducts media events throughout her designated region on the East Coast and issues press releases to showcase TSA in the best possible light.
“I also post tweets to do the same,” added Farbstein. “It’s an awesome job.”
Farbstein starts each day by reviewing a summary of the previous day’s incidents to prepare for her workday.
“I look at whether there were any gun catches at airports in my region, whether there were any artfully concealed items and whether there were any notable prohibited items,” she said. “If there’s a cool prohibited item I can get a photo of from one of the airports in my region, I’ll tweet about that.”
Then, there are the phone calls and emails from reporters, some of which Farbstein said can include strange inquiries requiring her and her team to do some research while others are routine.
Both Farbstein and Dankers have been with TSA’s Media team since 2011, while Spokesperson Patricia Mancha joined the team during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Mancha brings a special skill to her Southwest region. She speaks fluent Spanish, which comes in handy in her part of the U.S. which has an especially high Hispanic population and numerous Spanish television stations.
“It’s important to provide information to all communities we serve,” said Mancha. “In addition to Spanish language interviews, I often provide English language interviews to Chinese and other language media that are translated for their audience. I believe representation matters, and it’s important for our communities to know we are part of their community and care about their welfare.”
“Almost every city I visit has multiple television, radio, newspaper and podcast media organizations that publish in Spanish,” she added. “There is so much opportunity to inform and reach a segment of the population that typically doesn’t get our messaging.”
In addition to the regular interactions and Q&A with the news media, each member of TSA’s media team is also in charge of coordinating press conferences and press releases in their designated regions.
To give you a little more insight into the TSA media team, we asked Dankers, Farbstein and Mancha the following questions:
How frequently do news reporters contact you with questions, and what kind of questions are typically the most popular?
“Every day, I hear from reporters in my region, which primarily covers the West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii as well as the Rocky Mountain states,” said Dankers. “Reporters love to localize a national story, and I enjoy helping them do that whenever possible. I enjoy finding interesting ways to tell the story of TSA with them.”
“The types of questions often depend on the time of year – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day, Fourth of July travel,” Farbstein added. “They want travel tips, and I have a ton of travel tips from TSA officers I’m able to share. We also get a lot of inquiries if there is an incident impacting travel. A road closure at a terminal due to a car abandoned curbside is a good example or a security breach at a checkpoint that caused a halt to screening. Statistical questions are also common such as how many firearms have been caught.”
You are coming off the busy holiday travel season. How ramped up do you, as a spokesperson, need to be during the holidays, and what was your key messaging and approach?
“The holiday season is our version of the Super Bowl,” said Farbstein. “It’s our busiest time of the year for inquiries, just as it is the busiest time of year at the checkpoint. Game on! More people traveling means more questions from reporters.”
What are the biggest challenges working with the news media?
“The communication flow and working to ensure the information you provide is understood and published correctly,” replied Mancha. “Another significant challenge is the large geographical area each spokesperson covers. With a seven state region, it is difficult to reach every audience on a daily basis.”
“By far, the biggest challenge is meeting tight deadlines,” Farbstein said. “Sometimes it takes time to track down a subject matter expert who can provide me with an answer to an inquiry if it’s not a routine question.”
Dankers said, “I have the pleasure of working with a corps of reporters in the west who are in their first reporting jobs. They often don’t have historical context or other relevant information about TSA. It can be challenging to work with these reporters, but it is also one of my greatest joys. I am able to influence and mentor these new reporters, and I often see a younger version of myself in them as they launch their careers.”
In your opinion, what makes a good spokesperson?
“I like to think being approachable is one of the greatest qualities,” Dankers explained. “I want reporters to know they can reach out anytime with whatever query they have. I also think a good spokesperson needs to be decisive when presenting facts on any topic. A sense of curiosity is key, because in this job, you literally learn something new every day. You have to be a good student of TSA policies and procedures.”
“I don’t know everything but know where to go to get the answers I need,” said Mancha. “I enjoy working with reporters and listen to their needs to help them get the best story possible. Reporters need photos, videos and information to get a good story, so I work with our airport teams to provide as much information as I can. I love my job and have lots of fun doing it.”
How concerned are you that you might say the wrong thing?
“That’s an occupational hazard but one I don’t worry about constantly,” Mancha answered. “I said the wrong thing, and it ended up on the front page of the Miami Herald one time. That was a learning experience early in my career, and I work hard to speak only about what I know and don’t give personal opinions. I’m not afraid to say I don’t know.”
“Sometimes a response can be like walking on a tightrope, because there is only so much you can say about a controversial or sensitive topic,” Farbstein said. “When that is the case, I prefer to send an email response over a verbal response so I am 100% certain that what I share is not misinterpreted and to ensure I’m not misquoted.”
Dankers admitted, “There have been times when I have said something I wish I had not, either because I didn’t fully understand the topic or new facts become known. I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call a reporter. I honestly recite what occurred and ask them to modify their reporting. I find, more often than not, they are willing to do so. They are motivated to get it right, and that works in my favor.”
Why is your job so important to TSA and the traveling public?
“With more than 2 million people traveling each day, what we, as spokespeople, do is critical to educating the public, defending our workforce and policies while also ensuring we remain transparent in what travelers can expect,” emphasized Dankers. “I often find that people have a lot of misunderstandings about the agency and what we do. I enjoy reversing the narrative.”
Farbstein added, “I help educate the public and share positive news about TSA. I share new innovative technologies that passengers should be aware of and help demystify what TSA does to enable the public to have a more complete understanding of the agency. It’s more than blue-shirted TSA officers, but for the most part, that’s all the public ever sees or knows about. Of course, there is so much more for me to brag about what we do.”
By Don Wagner, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs