‘We have a very dry sense of humor’: Inside the TSA’s Instagram strategy

One collage on the Transportation Security Administration’s Instagram account features a decomposing corpse being passed through screening at the Atlanta International Airport.

“This crusty ol’chap is actually a prop from the #TexasChainsawMassacre movie,” reads the caption. “He was screened and sent on his jolly way.”

With 10,643 likes (compared to its average of 3,000 likes), the post is TSA’s most popular on Instagram. It perfectly represents the government agency’s tone on the platform: bizarre yet informative and funny.

“We are trying to be professional, but we have a very dry sense of humor at times,” said Bob Burns, social media lead for the TSA. “I choose the best pictures that are not only entertaining but also educational. Sometimes I post quirky photos to keep the conversation going.”

Burns posts one image per day most days (sometimes more if he has really good content). Photos usually feature confiscated items — examples of items passengers have mind-bogglingly tried to get onto planes — including batarangs, ammunition, guns and throwing knives. While his own wheaten terrier dog, Rusty, hasn’t yet made the cut, Burns often posts service canines to the TSA account with the hashtag #DogsOfInstagram.

This is Doc. Follow the link in our profile to read our latest #TSAOnTheJob blog post and learn all about Doc and his handler. #DogsOfInstagram #WorkingDogs

A photo posted by TSA (@tsa) on

“A mix of weapons and dogs surprisingly work well,” he said. “Travelers often complain that the lines are too long. But now they understand that it’s because TSA is finding all this stuff. And they know more about what TSA employees are doing. I think Instagram helped us change the conversation.”

Burns set up the TSA Instagram account back in 2013, and it has gained more than 474,000 followers to date. In July of this year, he further started posting screenshots from AskTSA, a customer service program on Twitter and Messenger that was designed to answer a travel question about a certain item. AskTSA takes an average of between 300 and 600 inquiries every day.

“I used to post public service announcements with images featuring a plane behind, for example. But that didn’t work well,” said Burns. “People like screenshots because those are questions they care about.”

And like any brands, the TSA sometimes gloms onto trending hashtags, but it never goes crazy. For instance, on May 4, Star Wars Day, Burns posted a Darth Vader helmet asking travelers to report medical items.

“I’m so blessed to live in a country where a government agency posts this,” user @constance.c commented.

“@tsa funnier than the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” another user, @arduousbrain, wrote.

And on March 14, Pie Day, Burns posted a pie because travelers constantly ask if they are allowed to carry a pie on the plane during Thanksgiving.

Going forward, Burns plans to produce more video content and live streams via Stories on Instagram, but he hasn’t yet figured out a concrete plan. “Until now, we just have one or two video clips on Instagram,” he said. “We have ‘The Faces of TSA’ on YouTube. It would be interesting to see how that series pans out on Instagram.”

Homepage image via TSA on Instagram.


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