The Public Relations Strategist

A Space Station Odyssey: NASA Receives the 2017 Best of Silver Anvil

July 26, 2017

[nasa]
[nasa]

In the summer of 2011, after a 30-year run, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program ended.

For the agency, this marked the beginning of a new era — the chance to work on fresh, boundary-pushing projects, like piloting deep space and getting a human to Mars, free from the former program’s budgetary constraints.

But without any high-profile launches to capture the media’s attention, the public began to wonder whether NASA was even a functioning organization anymore, a misunderstanding the agency feared might steer talented students away from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. How would the country find its next crop of brilliant astronauts?

“When the shuttle program ended, it changed our public image,” said James Hartsfield, manager of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Because shuttle launches from Florida were such a huge media attraction, I think it is well acknowledged that the visibility decreased.”

With this visibility issue in mind, NASA decided it needed something to entice the public — a project that could both invigorate taxpaying citizens and inspire science-loving students to stick with their dreams of reaching space one day.

The agency settled on a mission that would bridge the gap between NASA’s previous achievements and what it hoped to accomplish in the future. It would send a crew led by astronaut Scott Kelly to the International Space Station — an orbiting laboratory constructed during the Space Shuttle era — for an entire year, giving people a window into the minutiae of life aboard a spacecraft.

“The One-Year Mission gave us an opportunity to have somebody on the space station for a year to celebrate everything from holidays to milestones to records to anniversaries,” said Arturo Sanchez, the integration manager for the  International Space Station Program Office.

The mission culminated in a 2017 Best of Silver Anvil during the annual awards ceremony in New York on June 8.

Surveying the public

In 2013, NASA started conducting research to better understand the public’s perception of the agency in the wake of the end of the Space Shuttle Program. First, it surveyed its stakeholders: congressional staffers, academics, media members, former astronauts. Then it sampled citizen perspectives by combing social media channels, analyzing comments on blogs and online news articles, and sending Freedom of Information Act requests.

NASA found that people weren’t paying close attention to the agency.

“We found that Americans want to explore space and continue to reap the technological and economic benefits of exploration,” said Sanchez. “But while awareness of NASA, of course, [was] high, understanding of the International Space Station was low.”

With its next mission, NASA realized it needed to remind people of an idea prominent during the days of Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong: Space travel is exciting, high-stakes stuff. 

“We are blessed with content that no one else has,” said Hartsfield. “We’re telling the human story of adventure. We’re using technology at the limits of what the world could produce, putting people into environments that are the limits of what they can endure, and the public is fascinated by it.”

Creating synergy

One of NASA’s main objectives for the One-Year Mission was to boost the agency’s online presence, setting a series of benchmarks it hoped to clear, including a 740,000 increase in space station Facebook likes, a 1,050,000 increase in Instagram followers and a 250,000 increase in mission website views.

NASA managed to exceed these goals: Facebook likes increased by more than 914,000, Instagram followers shot up by more than 1,265,000 and mission homepage views grew by more than 320,000, thanks to the popularity of NASA-hosted Web shows like “Space Station Live” and “Space to Ground,” where viewers could learn more about the operations aboard the International Space Station through interviews and insights from the crew.

However, Sanchez also sees NASA’s emphasis on synergy as a major factor in its success. The agency worked to create situations where students and journalists could interact at the same time with the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

“We might have an astronaut talk to schoolkids on the ground — a great activity,” he said. “But if we also have a large contingent of media present at the event that is covering the way NASA has inspired these students, it’s an even better activity.”

Appealing to influencers

In addition to connecting with the general public, NASA also targeted celebrity influencers.
 
NASA partnered with 20th Century Fox Entertainment to provide guidance and production on the $630 million-grossing film “The Martian.” It participated in the movie’s national and international premieres, and even welcomed Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain to the Johnson Space Center for a tour of its station mockups to prepare for her role.

The mission also earned fervent plugs from two of the more iconic media influencers of the past decade — former President Barack Obama, who commended Kelly for his year in space and implored him to “Instagram it” while in orbit, and former First Lady Michelle Obama, who invited Kelly to attend the 2015 State of the Union Address.

Contextualizing the science

NASA knew its outreach efforts would be futile if it wasn’t able to get people interested in the science behind the campaign. Luckily, the agency could tap Kelly — a veteran astronaut with strong communication skills — to be the face of the One-Year Mission.

“Astronauts get baptized in media coverage very early on in their career,” said Hartsfield. “[But] some people are naturally better with media than others, no matter how much you train someone. We were fortunate with Scott.”

Kelly’s video dispatches from the International Space Station showcase his levity and humor, and his natural knack for engaging with people. In one sequence, he explained life in a microgravity environment by playing Ping Pong with a drop of water. And when asked during an interview on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” about whether he wished his extensive space travels could be cashed in for frequent-flyer miles, Kelly drolly responded, “That would be nice, because we don’t get paid any extra to do this.” 

His natural charisma helped NASA communicate its research goals — which were centered on studying the possibilities and human limitations for long-term space travel — to the masses.

If Kelly and his astronaut colleagues could thrive in orbit for a full year, then maybe people did possess the capacity to travel far into space for extended periods of time — and perhaps even reach Mars one day. “We were able to tell folks that ultimately this was going to make us smarter about the human body,” said Sanchez.

NASA monitored the evolution of Kelly’s health in space by comparing him to a close counterpart stationed on Earth — his twin brother, Mark, who is also an astronaut. This scientific affordance also turned out to be a PR gift. 

“It was a unique situation, where we have the astronaut who’s going to fly on station for a year, and who has a twin brother who’s also a former astronaut and is here for us to connect with,” Sanchez said. “That increases public interest.”

Inspiring future astronauts

In building its campaign, NASA had its eye on the future, pitching some of its communication efforts at individuals who may not be on Twitter or Instagram yet: kids.

“I think there’s a large segment of the population, especially students and young kids, who are fascinated by space flight,” said Hartsfield. “It’s a great story that’s continuing on.”

For Hartsfield, one of the main goals of the One-Year Mission was to turn that fascination into a “lasting relationship” for future generations, which the agency worked toward by emphasizing the educational outreach portion of its campaign.

These efforts included establishing a partnership with Time magazine to score extensive media coverage in Time for Kids, opening a portal on the NASA website dedicated to helping teachers plan science lessons, and co-creating a webpage with Texas Instruments titled “Mission Imagination,” where students could learn more about the science and math behind space travel through design challenges and interactive videos. To reach adults, NASA also launched a #BeAnAstronaut campaign to get the word out about open positions at the Johnson Space Center.

In the end, the blitz paid dividends. NASA set a personal record in 2015 for the highest number of astronaut applications ever received in a year. For Hartsfield and Sanchez, this may be the most significant marker of success for the One-Year Mission.

“Passing in the night is one thing,” said Hartsfield. “But when you can build a lasting relationship and engage people and engage students that may even look like they can have a career that achieves these things, that’s when you win.”

Dean Essner

Dean Essner is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications. A former resident of Washington, D.C., he holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English from the University of Maryland. Email: dean.essner@prsa.org.

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