Frank Sietzen, a space journalist and co-author of “New Moon Rising,” about the return to the Moon initiative now under assault by the Obama administration, poses an interesting question on the NASA Watch website:
“In these pages we have seen one disconnect after another on how poorly NASA sometimes produces its own message. An overwhelming majority of people have no idea what NASA does, other than Shuttle missions and the Hubble. Strangely enough though, according to a focus group done for NASA in 2008, when people are told some details about the space program, belief that it is important to the nation soars.
“If you have had the need to interact with NASA Public Affairs folk, like Keith and I have done for years, the results are a mixed bag. Some are incredibly industrious, hardworking and endeavor to get you what you need when you need it. Others could care less, and act as if their job is to make it hard to get at information. Like it is a dwindling resource. One has to wonder if this extends to briefing members of Congress or even the White House. One thing is sure: if this doesn’t change for the better and soon, NASA may have missed an historic opportunity to galvanize public support at a critical time in its history.
“My question for NASA Watch readers: Let’s say you were in charge of NASA Public Affairs for one month. And were given free reign by the Administrator. What or how would you improve things? Or is the situation too far gone?”
Sietzen has issued an old complaint. NASA Public Affairs has been dysfunctional as long as there has been a NASA. It takes a lot of talent to make the Moon landings seem boring, but NASA PA seems to have accomplished it.
The problem is, as we covered by my somewhat fictional dialogue with “Don Draper,” selling something requires a compelling, interesting story. The current story is of a beleaguered space agency, under assault by the President, torn by a public tug-of-war by members of Congress, whose primary mission is vague and controversial, whose morale is subterranean, and whose future is, at best, uncertain. No one in their right mind would want to try to handle the public relations of an organization like that.
But the thought experiment is too interesting to let it go at that. So let us suppose that it is, say, February of 2013. The new President has set a new course for NASA, fixing a lot of the damage that President Obama has wrought, focusing on a return to the Moon, with further deep-space exploration and settlement to follow. Congress is on board, even with adequate funding.
To complete the science fiction aspects of this exercise, I am supposing that the new NASA administrator has called me on the phone and has asked me to become Associate Administrator for Public Affairs. A crazy idea, to be sure, but this is Frank Sietzen’s thought experiment and we’re going with it.
Now, federal law forbids government agencies from advertising to sell their agenda. Everything has to be under the rubric of “education” and “public outreach.” So there will be no trip to the modern, real-life equivalent of “Cooper, Sterling, Draper, Pryce” to get Peggy to come up with a campaign. Despite Frank’s promise of free reign, the budget is likely to be somewhat limited.
So, absent the Super Bowl commercial, the main thing I would do would be to make the NASA.Gov website more interactive. I would create a section in which the public is invited to submit essays and videos about space. These can consist of suggestions, commentary, reminisces, or even critiques. The best one-to-five of each would be posted to the site.
I would have a weekly blog in which some aspect of NASA and space in general are featured. Some of these entries would be written by guest bloggers, not just from NASA, but from outside, including some critics. There will also be a section I would call “Ask NASA” in which five-to-10 of the best questions from the public are posted and answered. The comments section will have to be heavily monitored. Anyone who has read blogs that allow comments will find anonymous trolls who like to take the opportunity to act out. Plowing through and deleting such comments will be a slog, but that is what interns are for.
The blog and the interactive site are cheap ways to do market research. Public relations is not just about talking about one’s subject, but also about listening, even to critics. Critics are, if nothing else, well-motivated to find out the flaws in your message and will be of great help to refine it.
I would also make myself available for regular press conferences and interviews. Space reporting can be an arcane art, especially in the modern age, when the mainstream media are cutting back and so many talented (and otherwise) amateurs are trying their hands at reporting space. My office would be of help to people who are trying to report on what NASA is doing.
Finally, I would hold periodic townhall meetings. First, this is another great way to be appraised of public attitudes toward NASA and space in general. Second, it’s another great way to answer questions and to clear up misconceptions.
No doubt the above is not a comprehensive list of everything that could be done to improve NASA public relations. But it does constitute a good start, and could go a long way to educating the public about what the space agency does and why it does it.
Sources: NASA: How Would You Help the Messenger Improve the Message?, Frank Sietzen, NASA Watch, September 8th, 2010
Selling the Space Program: A Conversation with ‘Don Draper’, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, September 3rd, 2010