How PR landed humans on the moon

With so many contributing in so many ways—and each having a unique story to tell—the contractors’ PR reps outnumbered the entire NASA staff. Here are the lessons.

“Because without public relations . . . we would have been unable to do it.”

-Dr. Wernher von Braun, director of NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center and chief architect of the Apollo Saturn V launch rocket, July 22, 1969

The Apollo program is the largest, and the most important, public relations case study in history.

It’s a story that had to be told, but to date had not—and certainly not from the perspective of marketing and PR practitioners. It is a story that could only truly be told while many of the key participants were still alive and willing to be interviewed and share their stories with us for our book “Marketing the Moon.”

My co-author Rich Jurek and I had always assumed that NASA had a massive PR machine that drove Apollo. That’s the common wisdom, and this position is incorrectly reported in books and articles all too frequently.

What we learned by speaking with half of the men who walked on the moon, NASA public affairs officers, PR representatives from contractors like Boeing and Raytheon, and journalists from outlets like Reuters and the New York Post is that NASA didn’t put a man on the moon alone; it was a team effort by NASA, industry, and the media. We’re thrilled to showcase this story for the first time and in colorful detail in our book.

Collaborative competition

This is a story that has value today. The idea of government and industry working together to achieve a goal has been lost in the competitive nature of government relations. Indeed, during the Apollo program it was common for industry and government employees to work side by side.

It didn’t matter what organization your business card said—they were all on the same team, trying to achieve the same goal. That benefit accrued to the companies that worked on Apollo was part of the goal and the PR people worked to make sure their companies shared the limelight.

During the Apollo program, PR 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. This was a fascinating partnership between NASA and industry.

A little help from their friends

NASA had a lean public affairs team for such a large government agency; in July 1969, it consisted of only 146 employees in 15 locations nationwide. Therefore, the contractors’ public relations representatives became primary sources of information about technical aspects of the Apollo missions for thousands of journalists.

“We knew each other, we talked, and as the program gained momentum in ’68 and early ’69, all the PR guys got together and tried to figure out how we could carve out a little bit for ourselves and be of assistance to the thousands of journalists around the world who were following the program and coming to Houston for the moon landing,” Harold Carr, a public relations representative for Boeing at the time, told us.

Whenever the press had detailed questions about spacecraft design, hardware, or spaceflight subsystems, the answers came from PR representatives from the companies that built the components.

“We sure didn’t do the PR job by ourselves,” Chuck Biggs, a NASA public affairs officer during Apollo, remarked in an interview with us years later. “We needed representatives from Rockwell, Martin Marietta, and all the other contractors to do the job. By head count, we had more contractors’ public relations people than we had NASA employees.”

It was a true communications partnership created to tell the Apollo story worldwide through the media.

Seeking recognition and advantage

Naturally, every Apollo contractor hoped their PR efforts would result in positive coverage about their company in the thousands of news stories about the lunar landing. Nearly all were actively engaged in efforts to secure additional government contracts, so favorable press coverage and association with the Apollo program set them apart and gave them an advantage.

To these ends, contractors developed elaborate press kits containing detailed information about each company’s role in the program. These printed materials supplemented the in-person expertise available to reporters during the course of the missions.

With all the recent hoopla about how online content serves as a tool for public relations, few people realize that content has been around as a PR tool for more than 50 years. The greatest story never told (until now) about content as a marketing tool is that it helped to deliver humans to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While everybody is looking for the next big thing in public relations, I found inspiration by going back half a century.

I have a large collection of press kits prepared by the public relations staffs at the major contractors for the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. These press kits provided valuable additional information not found in NASA-issued releases. Reporters and editors working on stories about the lunar landings had access to such documents from more than a hundred manufacturers. I love the artwork and design of the kits.

Guaranteeing that a kit of materials would stand out from the crowd was no easy task. A mere printed release together with press-ready photos tucked inside a pre-printed folder wasn’t enough when hundreds of other public relations people were also courting the media and handing out documents. But a creatively produced press kit with well-presented, clear, informative materials often captured attention and led directly to mentions in the media.

First camera on the moon

Hasselblad, the Swedish camera manufacturer, chose to showcase what their product did. In a thick press kit sent to the media and issued at Apollo launches from Apollo 12 onward, the single press release headlined “First Camera on Moon” seems like an afterthought next to the stunning 36-page book of photographs included within the kit.

The book, with an introduction by Victor Hasselblad, features dozens of photographs from the first flights of the lunar module on Apollo 9 and 10 and the first lunar landing of Apollo 11. It demonstrated to reporters in stunning detail precisely what a Hasselblad camera could do and why it was chosen by NASA to document the Apollo missions.

Clearly, if a product was as simple to understand as a camera used on the lunar surface, the manufacturer had an edge getting it mentioned in the media. But most companies weren’t in such a position.

For spacecraft hardware manufacturers, capturing the media’s attention required a bit more creativity. Realizing that reporters would need to interpret complex data for readers and viewers in accessible language, several contractors included visual representations of esoteric technical information in their press kits.

For example, Grumman included a multi-sheet graphic that dissected its lunar module. A series of cutaways printed on layers of clear acetate sequentially revealed the detailed inner workings of the spacecraft, providing a comprehensible visualization of the LM’s construction at the Grumman plant.

Sometimes history is our best guide to the future. The Apollo program was a triumph of public relations as much as it was a feat of engineering. I’m thrilled to tell this story.

David Meerman Scott is an internationally acclaimed strategist. His new book can be found on Amazon.com.

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Topics: PR

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