It’s hard to imagine the TSA winning a popularity contest. But there it is, sandwiched between badgalriri (Rihanna) and Beyoncé on RollingStone.com’s 100 best Instagram accounts.
Yes, the Transportation Security Administration — the government agency that rivals the Internal Revenue Service for unpopularity with the public — ranked No. 4 for its Instagram. It bested megastar Beyoncé (No. 5). The inescapable Kim Kardashian ranked first, followed by National Geographic. Even NASA only rated No. 6.
“We ranked the TSA in the top 5 as we found it fascinating, entertaining and terrifying as most of the feed is devoted to photos of items the TSA has confiscated from luggage at various airports,” Rolling Stone spokeswoman Kathryn Brenner said in an email. “It opened our eyes to what they have to deal with on a regular basis — from hatchets and brass knuckles to loaded handguns, live eels and a shocking number of batarangs [a bat-shaped throwing weapon] and we really enjoy seeing airport life from their perspective.”
The nod from Rolling Stone is a bit of a coup for the oft-criticized agency, which in the spring was the target of congressional ire after travelers complained of hours-long waits at security checkpoints at airports in Chicago, Atlanta and other U.S. cities.
It also is an acknowledgment at how adept the agency has become at using social media to engage the public. Whether it’s inviting travelers to tweet @askTSA for answers about what they can and can’t bring on their flight or using its blog to bust myths, these platforms have given TSA new ways to build goodwill, educate the public and shore up its image.
On Instagram alone, TSA has more than half a million followers, and its posts have garnered more than 150,000 comments. The images the agency has shared have generated more than 2 million likes.
“I knew it would be popular and I knew we’d have a never-ending source of content,” said Bob Burns, who runs the Instagram account. “But I didn’t know how popular we’d be.”
This isn’t the first time the TSA account has garnered attention. Burns recalled that shortly after it launched, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel good-naturedly joked that TSA used “ . . . more hashtags than a 13-year-old girl.”
That may be, but somehow TSA’s formula of weapons and dogs has proved to be an irresistible mix for its followers, who post comments such as “this instagram is absolutely amazing” and “this is the best Instagram account ever.”
Burns is a big, friendly bear of a man. He played rhythm guitar in a band called Big in Iowa and served five years in the Army before becoming a TSA officer at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, in 2002.
Although he had no formal social media experience when he launched the TSA blog, he’d always been fascinated by how technology connects people.
“I like to be able to engage people and give them things that would make them want to come back and read more of what we’re doing,” Burns said in an interview at Reagan National Airport.
The agency’s Instagram account showcases the hundreds of weird and wacky items that enter security checkpoints and baggage screening at airports throughout the United States.
There’s the dagger that was concealed inside a replica of the Eiffel Tower, the human skull in the clay pot and, of course, the knife hidden in an enchilada. And then there was the Chihuahua that sneaked into its owner’s checked bag.
“Sometimes you just wonder, what are people thinking?” Burns said.
He doesn’t post every day. With so many crazy and unique items making their way through checkpoints, he can afford to be choosy. Still, he said, it’s hard to go wrong with animals — the feed includes numerous pictures of TSA dogs at work — and guns.
The agency’s most popular Instagram image, with more than 10,000 likes, is of a life-size prop dummy from the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie from a security checkpoint at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The caption that accompanied the post? “Talk about deadheading.” Burns notes in the post that “he was screened and sent on his jolly way. #TSAOnTheJob”
It’s that kind of quirky sense of humor that former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley was looking for when he tapped Burns to lead the agency’s social media efforts in 2008. Most of TSA’s communications with the public were through official channels, and Hawley wanted a less formal way of reaching the public, written by someone travelers could relate to.
He’d gotten to know Burns when he served on an advisory committee Hawley had formed to get feedback from front-line TSA employees.
“He was always funny, always outspoken and when we’d talk about something he would crisp it up into one phrase that would describe it perfectly with a grain of humor,” Hawley said.
In those early days, Burns worked largely without an editor.
“Some of the stuff was crazy and I got a lot of grief for it,” Hawley said. “But it met the authenticity test. I am not the great Internet guru, but I do know that people appreciate authenticity.”
These days, Burns is no longer a one-man social media machine. There’s a team that manages the agency’s Twitter feed so he can stay focused on Instagram, the blog and the next platform. Pinterest, perhaps?
Even after years on the job, Burns said he never knows when he’ll be surprised by what lands in his inbox. Humans, he said, are an odd bunch.
Said Burns: “A lot of people say that our account has some weird formula because who would have thought of posting pictures of weapons and dogs?”