8 lessons from space-focused comms

Tell a story. Make news. Work as a team. As Trump calls for the establishment of a Space Force, we consider comms lessons beyond this world.

Trump's Space Force

Perhaps it’s the inner Captain Kirk in all of us. Maybe we’re fascinated by the movies’ extraterrestrial sasquatches and battles against swarming alien fleets.

Either way, outer space captures the imagination—and journalists’ attention.

President Donald Trump’s call on Monday for the creation of a Space Force as a sixth branch of the military will be debated by the experts. Yet it serves as a reminder of the lessons that space communications have taught us.

“We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force—separate but equal,” he said. “It’s going to be something.”

Whether this is a passing whim or a clear presidential initiative, the final frontier has long offered PR inspiration. Here are a few takeaways from space-related communications:

1. Tell a story.

If you want to capture the public imagination, it’s not enough to launch a product or a rocket. Your big new thing has to be part of a broader narrative.

“President Kennedy told a story—we will land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s,” says David Meerman Scott, author of “Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program.”  “It was a powerful story that most people in the country could rally around.”

2. Don’t just beg for coverage—make news.

When SpaceX visionary Elon Musk wanted a PR boost, he didn’t hound reporters for writeups of his company. He launched a spacesuit-clad mannequin in the driver’s seat of a red Tesla Roadster into space. Personifying the project with a driver, dubbed Starman, he proved the massive carrying capacity of SpaceX rockets.

The campaign proved once again that PR at its best is a verb (something is happening) rather than a noun (something exists). Best of all, the launch was the gift that keeps on giving, as Starman headed toward Mars.

3. It takes a team.

NASA alone didn’t put a man on the moon, Scott says. It was a team effort by the space agency, the industry and news media outlets.

“We as marketers can learn from the idea that you can put together a partnership with another organization and achieve something bigger than yourself,” he says.

“Specifically, during the Apollo program, the ‘marketing’ was most often handled by the private contractors and subcontractors of the program, as they had reason not only to get out the story of their involvement in the program, but all to sell their capabilities on both the national and international stages.”

4. You can recover from a mistake—if you solve the problem.

Sometimes it seems crises will permanently scar an organization. NASA proved in the near-disaster of Apollo 13 and the blunder of a blurry-eyed Hubble telescope that recovery is possible. Focus on fixing the problem rather than spinning the crisis, says Mario Almonte of Herman & Almonte Public Relations.

After a problem with Hubble’s main mirror was discovered, rendering the expensive space telescope useless, NASA had no option “except hunker down and get the problem solved,” Almonte says. The agency did so spectacularly.

5. It’s a real-time world.

The famous first live TV broadcast from the moon nearly didn’t happen, owing to a struggle between PR pros and senior astronauts at NASA, Scott says. PR officers wanted to institute an “open program” with very few press restrictions, but some of the most senior astronauts wanted to control and polish their respective public images.

“What this teaches us today is that you’ve got to be open and honest with the public,” Scott says. “You’ve got to operate in real time. The idea of controlling information within companies and operating slowly, letting things dribble out at your own pace doesn’t work so well in a 24/7, instant communications environment.”

6. Follow up words with actions.

It isn’t enough to put together a well-crafted statement on how you are addressing a situation, Scott says. You must put those words into action. When you act, and change happens, communicate that with your audiences.

“A change in policy or operations that is not shared doesn’t help you rebuild public confidence,” he says.

7. Engage your followers.

NASA has been ahead of the game in social media, tweeting astronaut photos and video of celestial events. Another aspect of its success has been engaging its fans.

Whether through tweet-ups or inviting influencers to cover its events, NASA has fanned the publicity flames for important stories.

8. Prepare for the long haul.

Most real-time global events have happened out of tragedy or occurred spontaneously—such as the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger explosion, Scott says.

“With Apollo, it was like Super Bowl Sunday over a sustained period of a decade after Kennedy set America on the course to land a man on the moon and return him home safely,” Scott says. “Many of the tactics employed today were invented, out of necessity, during Apollo.”


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