The DHS “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign at Super Bowl XLIX. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler)

#RealDeal Interview: Keeping the Public on Counterterrorism Watch

Read Part 1 of this interview on DHS’ Blue Campaign here

Aside from the READY Campaign, no other public outreach by DHS has higher visibility than the “See Something/Say Something” campaign. While it’s great to coach the public on what they need to do to prepare themselves, their families, communities and places of business for emergencies of all kinds, enlisting them to help keep the homeland secure is a big step.

From big cities to small towns, it’s not at all unusual to travel around America and see posters and billboards or even hear radio and television advertisements encouraging the public to help keep watch over their communities. It is community policing in citizen form.

In Part 2 of HSToday’s Editor at Large Rich Cooper’s profile of DHS’ Mick McKeown, the executive director of DHS’ Campaigns and Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) talks about the difference the See Something/Say Something campaign has made and where it’s going in the future.

Cooper:  With just four words, “See Something, Say Something” is very direct in what it is asking the public to do. How did the phrase evolve and how DHS get ownership of the campaign?

McKeown: The “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign was originally implemented and trademarked by the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who licensed it to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2010. The intent was to create a public awareness campaign to educate the public about the indicators of terrorism and terrorism-related crime, as well as the importance of reporting suspicious activity to state and local law enforcement.

Cooper: “See Something, Say Something” is also a phrase that has been adopted by multiple audiences – public safety officials, educators, public transit, the media, etc. for a range of purposes. Is that making your messaging and public engagement easier or harder?

Michael “Mick” McKeown

McKeown: DHS is only allowed to use the trademarked “If You See Something, Say Something” slogan for antiterrorism purposes and we believe there is strong brand association between DHS and the campaign slogan. Of course, people using the slogan in unauthorized ways and/or for purposes not related to antiterrorism has the potential to dilute the brand. However, DHS remains focused on spreading the campaign’s message in the way we are.

Cooper: What’s been your proudest achievement with “See Something, Say Something?”

McKeown: I have to say, my proudest achievement may seem a little surprising, as it occurred between sets at the Jingle Ball concert last December. DHS partnered with iHeart Media to have “If You See Something, Say Something” graphics and our “Protect Your Every Day” Public Service Announcement video shown on video screens in the venues. [Editor’s note: There were six of these concerts going on around the country during the holiday season.]

A few days after the Washington, D.C., concert took place, I had a parent come up to me and say, “I know you run the ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ campaign and I really appreciate you introducing this concept to my child. She needs to know about this stuff, too.”

And then a little bit afterwards, I had another concertgoer come up to me and thank me for running the ad at the show. They told me they only thought of the “If You See Something, Say Something” message as something that only applied to protecting the airport and we changed their concept of what “If You See Something, Say Something” was all about.

Both of those exchanges really stuck with me and reinforced the importance of our work. That meant a lot to me.

Cooper: Public transportation – buses, bus stops, airports, train stations, etc. – seems to be where the biggest focus area has been with this campaign. Where else are you hoping to put this messaging to resonate with the public?

McKeown: Yes, we have a lot of partnerships with public transportation entities given the amount of people that use public transportation and thus would be in a position to see “If You See Something, Say Something” messaging. With that said, we partner with a lot of different sectors to ensure our materials are visible in everyday life. We have messaging at major sporting events in venues thanks to our partnerships with major sports organizations including the MLB, NBA, NFL, and NASCAR, at state fairs, music festivals, movie theaters, on college campuses, in shopping malls and media outlets. We are trying to be as many places as possible in communicating on multiple media platforms in the hopes of reaching all different types of people.

Cooper: Has there been a specific community that has especially distinguished itself with the campaign that stands out as an example to others?

McKeown: The music industry has really stood out as an example for the campaign. We have artists that are venue owners and operators interested in helping us, motivated by keeping their guests and fans safe. Those groups are really at the forefront of working with us to get this message out, and we are really lucky to have them as our partners.

Cooper: What has been your toughest audience to engage with the campaign and what are you and the DHS team doing to engage them?

McKeown: We really want to bring the “If You See Something, Say Something” message more to college campuses. We’re certainly not having any pushback to engaging them but there is a lot of competition for their attention. It’s always a challenge to bring the “If You See Something, Say Something” concept to a new generation.

At its core, the “If You See Something, Say Something” message is focused on anti-terrorism and we want to project a collaborative voice with others to raise community awareness and responsibilities in colleges and other educational institutions. We want college students to be aware of the indicators and behaviors of suspicious activity and how to report it because that is something they will carry with them throughout their lives.

Cooper: Who are your best messengers for this campaign? Who or what resonates with the public and can move the needle in the positive direction you want it?

McKeown: The best messengers of any awareness campaign are people that can deliver an authentic narrative. These are people that have been present during an event and can share concrete experiences.  If you can make the story personal, you can help deliver the message with greater impact and make people pay better attention to what you are saying. If your message is not authentic, it will not survive in today’s messaging marketplace.

Cooper: Do you do anything especially unique to tune this campaign to resonate with different communities and cultures?

McKeown: One of my favorite aspects of the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign is the effort we make to have our materials and messaging be relatable to people of all ages and backgrounds. We are not always perfect in this, but we are constantly trying to improve by collecting input from our partners, inserting new imagery on our posters or creating different types of messaging materials. As our partners are our greatest assets, we want to work together to create a message they can share in their communities.

Cooper: If you could pick any platform or venue in which to advertise “See Something, Say Something,” what would it be?

McKeown: We’ve always had great reach with the Super Bowls, the All-Star Games, and other major sporting events. Those generate a lot of attention but by far the most gratifying place to see our message effectiveness is when people incorporate it into normal conversation. For me, the most rewarding thing is to hear people walk down the street and mention something about “If You See Something, Say Something” and follow through on it if they see something that is out of place to them. The best platform is word of mouth, and for “If You See Something, Say Something” to resonate in everyone’s hometown is a great place for the program to be.

Cooper: Over time, every public engagement campaign evolves. Where does this “See Something, Say Something” campaign evolve next? What are you planning to do to help keep the messaging sharp and in the public consciousness?

McKeown: We will continue to update our materials and PSAs on all platforms of social media, print, TV and radio to best reach our audience. As you know, each generation has a preference on how they view materials, and our job is to make sure we capture each audience.

Cooper: I’m going to put you on the spot. If you could pick one spokesperson for the “See Something, Say Something” to speak to America for 30 seconds, who would that person be and why?

McKeown: I would like to see someone like a Mike Rowe [of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs”] as part of the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. He’s really an “everyman” that speaks to all of us. He would be a great because in all of his roles, you can see that he gets people. He can speak with ease to the people of a small town or to the biggest of our cities and I have no doubt he could deliver on our message in an authentic voice that we so desperately want to have in delivering our message to people everywhere.

Cooper: How can public- and private-sector organizations partner with the “If You See Something, Say Something” Campaign?

McKeown: Send an email to seesay@hq.dhs.gov and include:

– The entity you represent

– Your name and contact information (phone, email)

– The city and state in which your entity is located

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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