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The simple genius of ‘If you see something say something’

By Joe DesPlaines

In the US there has recently been a resurgence in the use of the awareness campaign ‘If You See Something Say Something’, and I am happy to see this approach used extensively again. This slogan is genius in its simplicity: tt is direct, user-friendly, and very difficult to overthink, and produces the kind of situational awareness we need to combat the incidence of acts of violence. I have been in the crisis management business for almost 30 years and have not seen any approach that is as easy for people to understand and use.

Not many people are currently aware of the roots of this slogan. The current generation of crisis managers is familiar with the words, but few have any idea of their beginning. When asked, most folks respond that this is a Department of Homeland Security campaign, but that is only partially correct. According to the Homeland Security website, the If You See Something Say Something campaign “was originally implemented by the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority and is licensed to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a nationwide campaign.”

But even that is not the entire story.

According to Wikipedia, “The phrase was coined by Mr. Allen Kay, Chairman and Chief Executive of the Manhattan advertising agency Korey Kay & Partners, for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, one of his company’s clients. The day after September 11, 2001, Mr. Kay sat in his office on Fifth Avenue and wrote the slogan on one of the 3-by-5-inch index cards he carries around to jot down ideas. The company had already done advertising work for the authority, but Mr. Kay created If You See Something, Say Something before transit officials even asked. He said he wanted to help prevent another disaster and to do something positive in the aftermath of the attacks. Mr. Kay said his objective at the time he wrote the line was to save lives. ‘I’m proud of what it’s done and the potential it has to do more,’ he said of the slogan. ‘Some things you just can’t stop. But if it is stoppable, and that thought makes someone think twice and say something that stops something, that’s its reason for being.’”

Over the years, there have been detractors who claimed the slogan was an invitation to attack certain individuals or groups – a way to cover racism or stereotyping. The detractors predicted that the reporting of ‘suspicious’ individuals or groups would be used to make allegations that would result in investigations, rumors and potentially negative labeling.

However, an online review of the use of the slogan finds few cases where such phony accusations occurred. It seems that by all accounts, the benefits of this slogan far outweigh the few false accusations made by those individuals intending to do harm.

Breaking down the slogan explains its effectiveness:

“If You See Something” – emphasizes the importance of situational awareness, which is simply paying attention to your surroundings. Many of us are unaware of things or people around us, and to confirm this I conducted some informal research. On three separate days I positioned myself in the parking lot of my office building between 7:30 AM – 9:00 AM when most people arrived, and observed their behavior between leaving their cars and entering the building.

What I found was 58 percent of the people I observed left their cars and immediately began looking at their phones, paying no attention to their surroundings.

I subsequently visited a couple of colleges and found much the same thing as I walked around campus and watched students and staff – again, the focus was on their smart phones with little attention to much else.

I know we all want to be safe from harm but we have a personal responsibility to be aware of any threats: that is the world in which we live.

“Say Something” – If something is out of order or someone is acting in a way that appears threatening, we need to act and report the event/person to authorities.

We all know when something or someone seems out of place or strange and that is the time to act and let the professionals take over. But, it seems that we have lots of excuses including “It’s probably nothing” or “someone else will report this,” or my personal favorite, “I don’t want to get involved.”

If we want to be safe, we need to take some responsibility by saying something.

Bottom line: The If You See Something, Say Something slogan and campaign are sending the message that we all must be risk managers, paying attention to our surroundings and taking action by reporting threats. It’s a simple message that is pure genius - it calls for uncomplicated action that will make us all safer and more secure.

The author

Joe DesPlaines is a business continuity and crisis response consultant with Districts Mutual Insurance and Risk Services, Inc.  and has over 25 years of consulting and direct crisis response experience. Contact him at

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