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NASA Public Relations Case Study

Published on 27th March 2018

NASA’s “Year in Space” Campaign

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction………………………………………………………………………………..2
  2. Situation Analysis…………………………………………………………………………2
  3. Research…………………………………………………………………………………...4
  4. Action Plan………………………………………………………………………………...5
  5. Program Elements…………………………………………………………………………6
  6. Results and Outcomes…………………………………………………………………..…8
  7. Evaluation by the Organization……………………………………………………...……9
  8. Timeline for the Case………………………………………………………………….…10
  9. Comparison to SpaceX………………………………………………………………...…11
  10. Team Recommendations………………………………………………………...…….…11
  11. Citations……………………………………………………………………………….…14
  1. Introduction

When NASA retired its Space Shuttle Program in 2011, many feared that NASA had closed its doors for good (Carter, 2015). However, on March 27, 2015, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko launched to the International Space Station to begin their One-Year Mission in space (“Year”). They hoped to study the long-term health effects space has on the human body. In order to highlight its historic mission, the Johnson Space Center External Relations Office (JSC ERO) and the Space Station Program Office created a thorough public relations plan, despite NASA’s recent reduction in budget. The JSC ERO employed traditional public relations tactics and invented unique, new strategies to encourage community participation and raise awareness of human space exploration programs. For example, JSC ERO partnered with Time Magazine and 20th Century Fox’s production of “The Martian” to extend their reach. Ultimately, PRSA awarded NASA Johnson Space Center the Silver Anvil Award of Excellence in 2017 for its efforts (“Year”).

II. Situation Analysis

Organization Overview

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is a federal agency that was founded on July 29, 1958, by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Garber, 2018). Over the years, NASA has led most of the United States’ space exploration programs, including the Apollo Moon Landing expeditions, the Skylab Space Station and the Space Shuttle. However, in 2010, former President Barack Obama halted NASA’s existing plans (“2011”). Since its closing in 2011, NASA’s main goals have included extending human activities across the solar system, expanding scientific understanding of the Earth and universe, creating innovative space technologies, advancing aeronautics research, enabling aeronautics and space activities and sharing opportunities with the public to participate (“2011”).

NASA is an extremely large executive agency, and it comprises of numerous centers and facilities around the country. The Johnson Space Center (JSC), which is responsible for the “Year in Space” campaign, has led human space exploration for over a century. In fact, the center was founded in 1961 in Houston, Texas, and it was renamed after the late president and Texas native, Lyndon B. Johnson (“Johnson”). Today, approximately 10,000 people work at JSC, and Ellen Ochoa serves as the Director (“Johnson”). According to its website, JSC employs “creative and talented problem solvers who push the boundaries of explorations innovation” (“Johnson”). JSC has spearheaded the United State’s human space flight programs, such as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, the Space Shuttle programs, the International Space Station and Orion. Notably, every astronaut that has flown to the International Space Station has trained at JSC (“Johnson”). Overall, JSC plays a crucial role in improving science and technology to benefit mankind.

SWOT Analysis

Strengths

  • Internal commitment and passion to education and outreach (“NASA Human”).
  • Strong connections to external communities (“NASA Human”).
  • Breadth and depth of domain knowledge and over a century worth of experience in the field. NASA prides itself on being “the” database for human exploration (“NASA Human”).
  • Flexibility to evolve and survive over the years (“NASA Human”).

Weaknesses

  • A lack of unified direction for the agency and difficulty consolidating overall objectives (“NASA Human”).
  • Presence of many latent publics. Many stakeholders don’t realize they are even stakeholders (“NASA Human”).
  • Ineffective public outreach and lack of effective targeting (“NASA Human”).

Opportunities

  • Ability to find alternative channels for funding and support from outside of the government (Berger & Leon, 2012).
  • Ability to connect with outside organizations to improve branding and marketing of NASA (“NASA Human”).

Threats

  • Public opinion losing interest in the “NASA era” (Carter, 2015).
  • Decline of the NASA brand identity (“NASA Human”).
  • Emerging outside private human space exploration efforts and technology (Houser, 2017).
  • Loss of governmental support and interest in the agency, specifically funding cuts (“NASA’s Proud”).

Stakeholders

As NASA mentioned in its SWOT analysis in its annual report in 2012, the agency has numerous stakeholders that have various needs. Some prominent stakeholders include NASA employees and other federal agency employees, elected officials, the media, think tanks, academia, students and industry leaders in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (“NASA Education”). NASA is an executive agency and not a private corporation, so it does not have stockholders.

III. Research

JSC ERO conducted both primary and secondary research to learn about stakeholders’ concerns and current perceptions, gather feedback and construct the communications campaign. Through primary research in the form of interviews and surveys, JSC ERO found that Americans are aware of NASA, but they do not fully understand the purpose of the International Space Station mission (“Year”). Furthermore, JSC ERO discovered that NASA is struggling to inspire Americans because NASA’s long-term goals and missions are unclear to the public (“Year”). Finally, children in particular benefit from human space exploration because they are motivated to learn about science and technology and seek careers in STEM (“Year”). JSC ERO also conducted secondary research by analyzing people’s comments on blogs, online news articles and letters to the editor (“Year”). Furthermore, JSC ERO used fact finding staff to answer questions about controversial NASA issues from Freedom of Information Act requests (“Year”). Overall, JSC ERO’s primary and secondary research provided insight that shaped the messages in the “Year in Space” campaign.

IV. Action Plan

Overriding Goals

Overall, JSC ERO wanted to inform, educate and engage people of all ages to advance human space exploration. In order to address its overriding goal, JSC ERO established four measurable objectives.

Measurable Objectives

  • JSC ERO wanted to “raise awareness about the One-Year Mission by maximizing number of influencers talking about ‘Year in Space’ and increase traffic to the mission webpage by 250,000 page views.” Furthermore, JSC ERO hoped to “increase Space Station Facebook likes by 740,000, Instagram followers by 1,050,000, Space Station Twitter followers by 340,000 and Space Station Research by 108,000 followers by March 2016” (“Year”).
  • JSC ERO sought to “increase the number of American astronaut applications received for the next class of explorers by 50 percent in 2015 over 2012” (“Year”).
  • JSC ERO hoped to “Inspire, engage and educate students, educators and legislators using the excitement of human spaceflight from launch (March 2015) through landing (March 2016)” (“Year”).
  • Finally, JSC ERO wanted to “raise awareness about the One-Year Mission by earning media coverage in top-tier news outlets from launch through landing” (“Year”).

Overall Strategy

JSC ERO employed a combination of social media, community outreach, the use of internal information and media relations to achieve its four specific objectives (“Year”).

Creative Approach

Furthermore, JSC ERO invented creative, new ways to fulfill its goals. For example, the multi-faceted campaign provided students and media outlets the opportunity to speak with the astronauts on the International Space Station in real time (Garcia 2017). Furthermore, JSC ERO created multiple different web series that updated people about space station science and daily operations (Garcia 2017). Most notably, NASA partnered with TIME Magazine and the 20th Century Fox Entertainment award-winning film “The Martian” to excite the public about human space exploration (Garcia 2017).

V. Program Elements

Communications Strategies and Tactics

The “Year in Space” campaign included numerous program elements. First of all, JSC ERO conducted traditional public relations activities such as news releases, fact sheets, media advisories, media briefings and one-on-one meetings with elected officials (“Year”). NASA also collaborated with private companies, such as Texas Instruments and 20th Century Fox Entertainment. NASA and Texas Instruments developed a national challenge, “STEM Behind Space Exploration,” which asked middle and high school students to design solutions for the International Space Station (“STEM Behind NASA”). Furthermore, NASA partnered with 20th Century Fox in the release of “The Martian” (Bradley 2015). NASA provided guidance on costume and set design and answered questions about the authenticity of the science in the movie on social media (Dickerson 2015). For example, the Mars spacesuits, habitat, plant farm, rover and solar panels were adapted from real NASA technologies (Fox 2015). Actress Jessica Chastain also toured JSC to prepare for her role in the film, and NASA participated in the international and national premieres of the movie (Niedt 2015).

The “Year in Space” campaign also had a significant online presence. First of all, JSC ERO launched a “STEM on Station” website with space station-related resources for educators and students (“STEM on Station”). Furthermore, JSC ERO created two web series to educate viewers about the mission and the International Space Station. For example, JSC ERO developed “Space to Ground,” a web series that featured a summary of the week’s activities on the International Space Station (“Space to Ground”). Similarly, it produced “Space Station Live,” a live, 30-minute show on NASA TV that provided viewers with updates on space station science and exclusive interviews (Kramer 2015). JSC ERO also communicated with NASA’s publics on popular social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and YouTube.  In order to appeal to younger generations and to garner likes and shares, NASA’s social media accounts avoid scientific jargon and employ humor (Moon 2016). Additionally, JSC ERO used the internet to recruit a new class of astronauts. JSC ERO employed the hashtag #BeAnAstronaut on social media and developed a portal on JSC’s website for potential astronauts to apply for a position (Northon 2017).

Media Relations

Media relations was a large component of the “Year in Space” campaign. JSC ERO conducted media relations and collaborated with TIME Magazine to produce a series of products for TIME and TIME for Kids (Selmarten 2017). The campaign also gained press coverage when former first lady Michelle Obama invited astronaut Scott Kelly to attend the 2015 State of the Union address. During his speech, former President Barack Obama wished Kelly well on his year-long mission and asked Kelly to “Instagram” his experiences so he could keep tech-savvy Americans updated (Ebbs 2015). Furthermore, The Late Show host Stephen Colbert interviewed Kelly during the One-Year Mission from the International Space Station (Liptak 2016).

Media Coverage

The “Year in Space” campaign received both planned and organic media coverage on social media and mainstream outlets. For example, the campaign garnered planned mainstream media coverage from TIME Magazine and organic mainstream media coverage from The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME Magazine, Associated Press, CNN, BuzzFeed, ABC, NBC, CBS News and Reuters (“Year”). Furthermore, the campaign gained planned social media coverage from astronaut Scott Kelly on Twitter and organic social media coverage from the trending hashtags #BeAnAstronaut and #YearInSpace (“Highlights”).

VI. Results and Outcomes

Overall, the “Year in Space” campaign was extremely successful for JSC. First of all, JSC ERO effectively raised awareness about the “Year in Space” campaign online. Traffic to the One-Year Mission website multiplied, and the Space Station’s various social media platforms experienced an increase of likes and followers. Furthermore, a record number of Americans applied to become astronauts for NASA through the #BeAnAstronaut campaign. Additionally, the campaign earned coverage in top-tier media outlets.

JSC’s partners also benefited from the “Year in Space” campaign. For example, TIME ultimately won an Emmy for its “Year in Space” PBS special (“TIME”). Similarly, “The Martian” movie earned $630.2 million in the box office (Wang 2015). Therefore, NASA’s promotion of “The Martian” on its social media and NASA’s set and costume advice might have contributed to the success of the movie.

VII. Evaluation by the Organization

JSC ERO reported that the “Year in Space” campaign was extremely successful, as it surpassed its four initial objectives.

  • The campaign “raised awareness about the One-Year Mission by maximizing number of influencers talking about ‘Year in Space’ with a combined potential audience of more than 251 million people.” Traffic increased to the mission webpage by 321,163 page views. Furthermore, Space Station Facebook gained 914,673 likes, Instagram gained 1,268,900 followers, Space Station Twitter gained 455,000 followers and Space Station Research gained 155,563 followers (“Year”).
  • The campaign “increased number of American astronaut applications received for next class of explorers by 200 percent (or more than 18,300 applications) in 2015 over 2012...” The number of applicants holds a NASA record (Northon 2016).
  • The campaign “inspired, engaged and educated students, teachers and legislators using the excitement of human spaceflight from launch (March 2015) through landing (March 2016)” via programs such as TIME for KIDS and STEM on Station (“Year”).
  • The campaign “raised awareness about the One-Year Mission by earning media coverage in top-tier news outlets with key message placement...” (“Year”).

VIII. Timeline for the Case

IX. Comparison to Other Relevant Cases

NASA’s Year in Space campaign relates to SpaceX’s recent launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6. The rocket successfully launched a red Tesla Roadster and a mannequin astronaut named “Starman” from a NASA launch pad into orbit (Resnick 2018). Cameras were attached to several parts of the car so that people on Earth could live stream the event on YouTube (Resnick 2018). The goal of the mission was to advance American human space exploration and to promote future commercial space travel (Chang 2018).

Both SpaceX’s stunt and NASA’s campaign aimed to excite the public about human space exploration. SpaceX utilized the hashtag #FalconHeavy to promote the orbit just like NASA used the hashtags #YearInSpace and #OneYearMission. However, SpaceX is a private organization, while NASA is a government agency. Therefore, the marketing component played a larger role in SpaceX’s campaign. SpaceX strives to reduce launch costs and produce powerful yet reusable rockets as efficiently as possible (Thornber 2018). By broadcasting its recent launch and future launches in 2018, SpaceX will continue to demonstrate the dependability and quality of its products for future sales.

X. Team Recommendations, Insights, Learnings

            JSC ERO’s “Year in Space” campaign illustrates Excellence Theory and the Two-Way Symmetrical Model. First of all, JSC ERO conducted primary and secondary research to better understand its’ publics’ needs, and it maintained two-way communication channels with its publics on social media. Furthermore, JSC ERO created programs to establish mutually beneficial relationships with its publics. For example, through NASA’s partnership with TIME Magazine, people of all generations enjoyed an interesting television show on the One-Year Mission and TIME Magazine received an Emmy. Additionally, JSC gained publicity for its historic mission and increased its publics’ interest in NASA’s programs. As a result, JSC’s efforts to promote human space exploration benefited its cause and its publics.

Overall, JSC ERO created an excellent public relations campaign. First of all, the campaign appealed to NASA’s wide range of audiences. For example, school children participated in Texas Instrument’s “STEM Behind Space Exploration” program, and adults followed the One-Year mission through the TIME series on PBS. Furthermore, JSC effectively educated, informed and inspired its publics throughout the mission. NASA’s strong presence on social media and employment of hashtags such as #YearInSpace, #OneYearMission and #BeAnAstronaut increased user engagement. Additionally, JSC conducted successful media relations. NASA’s partnership with TIME magazine, a widely respected publication, helped JSC garner attention for the One-Year mission. Our group was also impressed that JSC landed placement in so many newspapers and magazines, especially top-tier outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post. Therefore, we were not surprised that JSC ERO won the 2017 Silver Anvil Award for Excellence for its “Year in Space” campaign.

However, our group thinks that JSC ERO should have reached out to more celebrity influencers to talk about the One-Year Mission on social media. Although Jessica Chastain toured JSC in Houston, the visit gained almost no press coverage. Furthermore, we found few tweets from verified Twitter users about the mission. Celebrity influencers with millions of followers could have reached a wider audience to publicize the event and increase user engagement. We think JSC ERO should have contacted celebrities like Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Both Nye and Tyson are well-known scientists who are active on social media and gain thousands of retweets and favorites. As a result, they could have helped JSC ERO raise awareness about the One-Year Mission.

By Haley Gardner, Jeff Holmes, Melissa Pearce and Hannah Wall

Citations

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