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Out of This World PR

Posted: November 2, 2012 at 12:00 P.M.
by Jessica Colburn

Did you ever dream of being an astronaut when you were a child? For many of us, this dream did not become a reality. Whether you discovered your love for space was not paralleled with a love for math and science, or you simply found another career dream,“the great beyond” could still be in your future!

Lisa Malone, director of public affairs at the Kennedy Space Center and a University of Alabama alumnae, never imagined she would find herself working at NASA post-graduation.

“I was working for University Relations and writing for The Crimson White and applied for an internship and didn’t expect to get it honestly,” Malone said. “I just thought it would be a summer internship.”

Little did Malone know that she would still be working at NASA 30 years later. Malone has had the opportunity of holding multiple positions in public affairs at NASA, including managing the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, government relations and education programs, and serving as a launch commentator for 15 years for space shuttle and expendable launch vehicle launches.

“I remember seeing on TV the first space shuttle launch,” Malone said. “I never even imagined I would be able to do a launch commentary!”

So, what does it take to work in communications at NASA? A few NASA communications specialists offered their advice and gave some insight into the world of PR in the “great beyond.”

You must be adaptive

“NASA’s not allowed to advertise, but we can inform and educate,” Malone said.

This challenge requires communications specialists to find new and different ways to communicate NASA’s message to its key publics. One of the unique outlets NASA likes to frequent is major motion pictures and film documentaries.

“We have news broadcasters from all over the world here to do stories on the U.S. Space program, and we have worked with numerous film crews on site making feature films and documentaries,” Malone said. “We work with them because we understand the potential to reach millions of people through these films.”

Malone also said such films help with future recruitment of NASA employees.

“A lot of astronauts say they get inspired through science fiction movies,” Malone said.

NASA also partners with IMAX to create documentaries that are shown worldwide and help with NASA’s educational mission.

“The IMAX folks have actually trained astronauts how to use their cameras,” Malone said. “It’s a phenomenal tool. It’s a good way to tell our story.”

Not only must you be able to work with varied outlets in this career, but you must also be prepared for company changes. NASA’s space shuttle program was recently ended and required a shift in NASA’s communication focus.

“We were launching shuttles for 30 years — that was the story we were telling,” Malone said.

“The final space shuttle mission brought to close a remarkable chapter in America’s history in space, while ushering in the next era of our nation’s story of exploration,” Tracy Young, NASA public affairs officer, said.

“NASA is now concentrating on building America’s next generation space exploration system, the Orion spacecraft, and the Space Launch System — the vehicle and rocket that will carry American astronauts farther into space than any spacecraft developed for human spaceflight has flown in the 40 years since our astronauts returned from the moon,” Young said.

Social media in space

“The use of social media has enhanced NASA’s ability to get timely and accurate messages out to a wide variety of audiences virtually instantaneously,” Young said. “By utilizing Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as well as our website, we are able to reach a world-wide audience in a matter of seconds.”

In 2008, Veronica McGregor, news and social media manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, started a Twitter account for the Mars Phoenix that quickly became the fifth most-followed account.

“The @MarsPhoenix Twitter account was the first time I could get direct feedback from the public, and it was also the first time the public could ask a question and receive an answer immediately from NASA,” McGregor said. “It opened a new door that worked both ways, and within months of the creation of that account, numerous other NASA missions also started Twitter accounts.”

McGregor noted the challenges of covering day-to-day operations of a space mission via traditional media. Through social media, NASA is able to highlight the entire experience.

“There is so much that goes on each day — behind the scenes — that is fascinating,” McGregor said. “I think showing this side to the public helps them to understand the challenges and the incremental achievements that never get mentioned anywhere else.”

Malone said NASA has social media events through which social media representatives can apply to come to a launch. The events include access to launch briefings, tours and a launch viewing to build interaction for NASA online. Malone said NASA distributes a news release about the application process prior to the event.

“We look at where they are based, their followers, if they blog,” Malone said. “And then there’s just the stay-at-home mom — if the mom is influenced, then the children are, too!”

Outreach is important

“Part of our communication strategy involves engaging students at a very young age and encouraging them to study science, mathematics, engineering and technology,” Young said. “We are looking to inspire the future generation of space explorers.”

One of NASA’s concentrations is on the education of the nation’s future workforce leaders. NASA’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program pursues three main goals: strengthening NASA and the nation’s future workforce; attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines; and engaging Americans in NASA’s mission.

Young reiterated the impact of the STEM program and its importance in educating children, today.

“One of these young people may be the first person to travel to an asteroid or set foot on the surface of the Red Planet!” Young said.

Be a life-long learner

“It’s a very interesting place to be — you are always learning something new,” Malone said.

As PR professionals we are expected to continue learning as technology advances, but we also must rely on basic communication tools. We are trusted to decide the best tactic to use when reaching stakeholders, whether the tactic is traditional or contemporary.

“I think you need it all; you just don’t focus on one area if you want to hit everybody,” Malone said. “Some audiences watch TV, some use social media, some read the newspaper — they’re all effective; we just have to use a layered communication approach.”

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  1. Post comment

    As I read “Out of This World PR,” my initial thought was what a great play on words. I thoroughly enjoyed how you pulled me in as a reader and reminded me of my childhood and all things outer space. However, like most individuals the idea of math and science quickly shifted my interest. So you can imagine my surprise to read that someone with a history in communications could possibly work for NASA. I found it refreshing to see PR presented in an educational format in order to reach and engage more children into NASA’s program, while technological advances shape the way NASA relays information to its audience. Well done, Jessica. I can not wait to see how NASA PR will develop and be used in the years to come.

  2. Post comment

    Great post, Jessica! I enjoyed this piece because when other children were amazed by space-themed movies, I was fascinated by the fact that the abundance of movies in the space genre was because of NASA putting them there. I think NASA is a wonderful example of the type of client public relations professionals are trained to work for. Being limited from advertising, professionals must find alternative ways to publicize NASA. I was also interested to read how NASA will change its communication techniques as it ends the shuttle program. I know I will have to deal with evolving industries as I enter the public relations world.


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