The Public Relations Strategist

How a Small Communications Team Guided a Shuttle to Big Landing

December 19, 2013

It’s not often that a PR team participates in charting the flight path of a space shuttle, bringing crime to a standstill and managing an event that mesmerizes large metropolitan areas for days.

The small team of PR and government affairs professionals at the California Science Center won’t claim direct responsibility for putting a dent in Los Angeles’ crime statistics.  However, they will take credit for capitalizing on their instincts and experiences to help create an event that Southern California won’t forget anytime soon.

In a city numb from frequent red carpet Hollywood openings and blasé to movie star sightings, the October 2012 arrival of the Space Shuttle Endeavour to its final resting spot in Los Angeles created a sensation for the masses — and a once-in-a-career PR opportunity.

This became a show in the air and on the streets. In a state that lives and dies by the car, motorists up and down California ditched their vehicles to look up into the sky as the shuttle gave its final encore. Tens of thousands surrounded Los Angeles International Airport for the arrival, then crawled atop roofs for the slow land-based journey from the airport to the museum.

It was one last opportunity to catch a glimpse of history. It ended up stirring feelings of pride and patriotism for residents — and a dramatic, sustaining increase in daily attendance at the California Science Center.

Creating excitement for the shuttle’s arrival fell to the small communications and public affairs staff at the California Science Center — the hands-on exhibit hall and IMAX Theater near downtown Los Angeles and the shuttle’s final stop.

“I went from sending advisories to the news media every three months for a new exhibit to providing updates with the Joint Information Command (JIC) about the shuttle every 15 minutes,” says Shell Amega, vice president of communications for the California Science Center Foundation. “I normally get a couple dozen media to a news conference, but eventually, was dealing with more than a thousand.”

The strategic planning and deft handling of the shuttle’s final journey earned the California Science Center team top honors at this year’s PRSA Los Angeles Chapter’s annual PRisms awards in November.

The effort began quietly for Amega and her colleagues, but quickly grew into an adventure of organizing hundreds of media relations volunteers, conducting background checks, managing logistics and planning sessions at the airport and City Hall, scouting locations, credentialing more than 1,000 news media, and working with multiple local, state and federal agencies.

Getting ready

The Science Center was among 20 museums that submitted proposals to receive four retiring Space Shuttles. Amega and her colleagues had to wait weeks for an announcement expected in April 2012.

“I told our executive management we needed to develop a strategic plan in case we get it,” she said. “We need to know how to manage the news media, how to quickly organize a press conference, who we wanted at a press conference. We need prepared statements and key messages.”

Some in executive management were initially resistant to such long-range planning, particularly since a news conference meant putting dignitaries and supporters on notice to be ready in a hurry. But Amega persevered and the planning paid off.

When NASA notified the Science Center just minutes ahead of the official announcement, Amega and her colleagues had to put the plan into action — but quietly.

“We couldn’t let the news media know in advance, but I knew we had to get to them quickly to let them know we were going to have a news conference,” she said. 

Borrowing the “connectors” lesson from Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point,” Amega knew that there was one reporter she could call to help spread press conference information faster than any press release distribution service could.  Soon, helicopters and TV news vans descended on the Science Center.

Taking off

In the early days of the shuttle program, Southern California occasionally heard the spacecraft as it created its distinctive double sonic boom coming in for a landing at Edwards AFB in the Mojave Desert. Now, with Endeavour’s final journey atop a modified 747 and cleared to fly as low as 1,000 feet, it was a chance for millions to see it fly by and up close.

On the final leg of the trip from Florida, NASA already had planned a couple of “wing dips” — the fly-by salutes to government installations that had a part in the shuttle’s construction and operation.

“But [Science Center President and CEO] Jeff Rudolph, who is very media savvy, said ‘Why not have Endeavour fly up and down the state?’” according to Amega.

Knowing that two chase jets, and potentially hordes of news media from the ground, would escort the shuttle — and photograph it — the team created a list of distinctive California monuments and landmarks for the shuttle to cruise by. This included the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the state capitol, Disneyland, the Hollywood sign, the Queen Mary and sister museums, among others. 

The result was a sweeping tour in which the shuttle acted like the Pied Piper, calling millions to visit the Science Center, as well as thousands of photographs and hours of video that have become invaluable marketing assets. There were 300 journalists and photographers at the airport, more than 400 on the bluffs nearby and another 700 around Southern California to capture the inbound flight.

Working together

The Science Center team also came to the rescue when state transportation officials nearly placed a roadblock in the path of Endeavour’s land-based journey from Los Angeles International Airport to the exhibit hall. 

After crews removed it from the 747, adapted self-propelled rigs were to transport the shuttle across city streets. But officials deemed the combined weight of the shuttle and the rig as too heavy to traverse the only bridge along the path.

Enter Toyota.

“Toyota had been a supporter of the Science Center for 20 years and they always are asking what they can do to help us,” said William T. Harris, Science Center Foundation senior vice president of development and marketing. “So when we ran into the issue at the [bridge on freeway 405], I called them and said, ‘I have a job for you’.”

In what is a now-famous print and TV commercial, a Toyota Tundra truck pulled Endeavour across the bridge on a trailer that the carmaker custom-built. Toyota’s contributions, which included a Twitter-focused fund-raising program, helped cover a portion of the millions of dollars required for the shuttle’s 12-mile crawl.

Once the shuttle crossed the bridge, workers placed it back on the self-propelled transit rig and continued the trip.

Piloting Communication

Shell Amega, vice president of communications for the California Science Center, shares some advice for managing an event of the magnitude:

  • Strategic planning: Insist on proactive efforts to develop messaging and media train key executives in advance. Shell saw an opportunity to further the Science Center’s educational mission with an orchestrated news conference after NASA selected Los Angeles, versus simply issuing a statement and one-off interviews.
  • Crisis planning: After the announcement that Toyota would provide a pickup truck to pull the shuttle across a freeway overpass the Science Center received some calls complaining about why the Science Center selected a Japanese-based manufacturer. The Center was ready with a response. The Toyota Tundra is made in the United States, the Toyota American division has been a long-time partner and Toyota has a long history of focusing its contributions on supporting science education — the latest effort was a Twitter fund-raising campaign tied to the shuttle’s arrival.
  • Relationship-building: As an educational institution, the Science Center had been involved in the neighborhoods surrounding its location for years — with schools throughout the city, with city and corporate leaders and other stakeholders. Counting on those personal relationships in a time of crisis proved invaluable.
  • Media relations: The Science Center’s communication team consists of three members. Although volunteers helped, the key was working with key media outlets in advance to plan the coverage of the shuttle’s arrival and road trip to its new home. Shell called these “hybrid” meetings, which more than 200 news editors and reporters attended. Additionally, while press pools are not welcome among East Coast news media, West Coast news crews understood why it required limited access.
  • Adaptability: Realize that plans cannot always be perfect. When a hiccup occurs, be ready to be creatively assertive and implement a new plan on the spot. — D.W.


Denis Wolcott, APR
Denis Wolcott, APR, is president of The Wolcott Co. and a nearly 20-year public relations veteran based in Los Angeles, CA. His father, Robert B. Wolcott Jr., was president of PRSA in 1966.


Wendy Bourland says:

I enjoyed this article on several levels, including how a small nonprofit communications team managed PR for a national event; how existing relationships with the media and the community helped them succeed; and how prior planning and preparation helped deal with the inevitable bumps/obstacles in the road, literally and figuratively.

Dec. 20, 2013

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