NASA’s new strategic communications plan

Today NASA plans to officially release a long-awaited new strategic communications plan. I was able yesterday to preview a copy of the plan, which goes over the market research NASA performed to see how the agency is perceived by the general public, how the agency plans to tailor its message to address weaknesses uncovered in that research, and strategies for implementation.

The market research (which Robert Hopkins, chief of strategic communications at NASA, discussed in some detail in a presentation last month at the ISDC in Dallas) found that, not surprisingly, NASA has broad public support, but a smaller fraction of the public believes that NASA is relevant to their lives. However, a far larger percentage of respondents believed the agency was relevant after being told about technologies (from smoke detectors to weather satellites) that the agency had a hand in developing. Poll results also showed limited excitement about, or even awareness of, NASA’s Moon and Mars exploration plans. Men and younger audiences tend to be more interested in such exploration, although the plan identifies its base audience as the “Apollo Generation”, those 45-64 years old.

Using those survey results, NASA has crafted a new “core message” that emphasizes not exploration or missions in and of themselves, but on the benefits accrued from them: “NASA explores for answers that power our future.” In the document, “future” is defined as the sum of three things: inspiration, innovation, and discovery. “Why explore?” the plan asks. “Because exploration powers inspiration, innovation, and discovery.”

The plan also introduces a more specific message for highly-targeted audiences called “The Space Economy”, which the document defines as “the full range of activities and the use of resources that create and provide value and benefits to human beings in the course of exploring, understand and utilizing space.” The plan calls for NASA to establish “thought leadership” around this concept that further enhances the agency’s relevance in specific audiences.

The implementation of the plan will primarily be structured around the year-long 50th anniversary celebration for NASA that will begin this October (NASA was formally established on October 1, 1958.) Many different events and other work are planned, from “Future Forums” around the country to new public service announcements to a “Web 2.0″ redesign of the NASA web site that will incorporate social bookmarking, tagging, user-generated content, and even a “NASATube” and “NASApedia”.

It’s far too early, of course, to tell how effective this is going to be. Even if NASA convinces the public that the agency is more relevant to them, will the public respond in turn by demanding more money for NASA from the White House and Congress? Or will the public simply be more satisfied that they’re getting their money’s worth at current spending levels?

14 comments to NASA’s new strategic communications plan

  • The only other US government body that surpasses NASA in public communications seems to be DoD. Do the others such as DoE, NIH, NOAA, NSF etc etc have such a high level of PR?

  • Thomas Matula

    Space Economy Sounds like “Mission Home” all over again. It will probably fail as well. If you want a marketing plan to succeed you have to sell folks something they want to actually buy.

  • Chance

    I can’t find the numbers, but I suspect the public affairs departments of DHS, FBI, Edcation, and the military all have much larger public affairs and communications budgets.

  • Al Fansome

    “The plan also introduces a more specific message for highly-targeted audiences called “The Space Economy”, which the document defines as “the full range of activities and the use of resources that create and provide value and benefits to human beings in the course of exploring, understand and utilizing space. The plan calls for NASA to establish “thought leadership” around this concept that further enhances the agency’s relevance in specific audiences.”

    Hmmmm …

    There are many thought leaders on the “space economy”, but they do not work for NASA (unless their name is Pete Worden). 99% of the agency does not understand what “risk adjusted return on investment” means and would not know how to compute an “Internal Rate of Return” without first looking it up in a text book.

    I wonder if this means NASA might become a “thought leader” on the value of “space property rights” on the Moon — that is a ripe area for establishing some “thought leadership” credibility. How about some “thought leadership” on how to incorporate ISRU throughout their lunar transportation architecture, and a LEO propellant depot — creating a space economy in commercially supplied oxygen? How about restarting a technology R&D program in space solar power (which died when Mankins left) — energy is a trillion-dollar annual market … that would justify giving them some space economy “thought leadership” bonus points.

    NASA will actually have to come up with a specific and rational plan, that stands up to the light of day, if they want to establish “thought leadership”.

    It would be good if NASA was serious about doing these kinds of things within the operational parts of the agency. Coming as it has from Public Affairs, it looks and smells like pure “spin” to me.

    I agree with Matula … but would expand his point — you have to not only have to sell them what they want to buy … you actually have to deliver on what you sell.

    – Al

  • Kevin McElroy

    What NASA needs to do is develop influence and independence, or some kind of powerful lobbyist cadre to keep pure science, economic and safety interests forward in the eyes of congress and the public, and keep the President and politics from steering the course of NASA for purely political aims. The “robotics for unadulterated research” mission is wise and shrewd investment policy, as compared to the “manned missions to mars and the moon” which is a purely selfish, slick and cinematic attempt by the president to establish a positive legacy by seeming bold and exploratory. This is hijacking and undermining real science for purely political aims and nothing more. It is a travesty.

  • Thomas Matula has published the briefing on the new communication plan. Its at

    The new campaign The Space Economy is indeed “Mission Home Redux”. Basically it plans to build public support for NASA by highlighting the benefits space has created for the general public like GPS, Satellite Radio, Weather Satellites, the usual list of medical spin-offs, robots for the troops, space tourism (on slide 48…), DirectTV. Etc…

    Yes, space exploration has bought you all these great benefits, so supporting NASA and its missions to Mars will bring you more benefits in the future. The fact that the NASA link to most of the benefits cited is tenuous at best as and if it exists at all traces to the legacy of Apollo isn’t discussed.

    I guess since it’s the 50th anniversary of NASA, and since NASA “invented” space exploration any benefits related to space, like XM radio, are due to NASA. At least they are no longer claiming credit for Tang, Velcro or Teflon…

    I see this as basically DOA. Critics will have blast asking why NASA is taking credit for XM Radio or GPS? And if weather satellites are a benefit why is it cutting funding for them?

    Like Mission Home it may excite the usual space cadets, and help some advocate groups and space publishers by buying advertising space in their publications like Mission Home did, but it won’t have any lasting impact for NASA funding in any measurable way. The spin-off argument has never worked long-term and NASA dodges the big question of what its future relevance, if any, is.

    Indeed all it really does is leave the door wide open to critics who will point out how weak NASA contributions have been to the economy in the Shuttle generation.

    I am teaching a graduate advertising class this session. I think I will have them evaluate this presentation as their final assignment. It should be interesting.

  • Kevin McElroy

    I guess what i am saying is that Nasa should be privatized. Get the gov’t out of peacetime research, though the Pentagon will have to stay up there as space defense will undoubtedly grow in importance. The govt cant afford space/science exploration anyway, it is already too bankrupt to provide healthcare or jobs.

  • Al Fansome

    This is really sad.

    My guess is that this is what happens when you have NASA leaders who care enough about “space commercialization”, to force the bureaucrats to listen to them, but have no real power to affect NASA’s core strategy or culture.

    I am guessing this is why Eric Sterner left recently. He was in officially in charge of NASA’s communication strategy. Mr. Sterner probably could see the writing on the wall.

    It is common knowledge (to those in the industry) that people like Dale, Sterner, Pace, Shank, Stadd, Ladner, and Frelk are all advocates of space commercialization. They all have actively promoted new space commercialization approaches in other jobs. They all have been part of the Griffin team at one point or another.

    What has not been remarked on is that four out these seven have left the Griffin train.

    Not surprising given that the NASA’s new communication strategy is rehash of “spin-offs”, and there is little sign that they have been able to effectively influence the agency to adopt more commercial approaches. I say this, noting that COTS existed before they were put in charge, that the Centennial Challenges was actually doing better under O’Keefe, that Red Planet Capital is dead, and they have failed to come up with a strategy to encourage private participation in their top priority … their lunar program.

    The core problem is that their boss has imposed a core strategy & transportation architecture that severely inhibits commercialization. I would probably leave too, if were one of them.

    – Al

    PS — While advocates for commercialization are leaving the Griffin train, I repeatedly hear (from multiple sources) that the regular NASA troops and bureaucrats “love Griffin.” That “he is one of us”.

  • Ray

    I’m actually a bit confused about the communications/marketing plan. It looks like it’s an advertising campaign to get NASA away from the ESAS approach. That doesn’t make sense to me since there’s a big NASA logo on the document.

    For example, page 48 covers applications that sound like robotic satellite applications: “GPS, weather, climate, defense, imagery”. Aren’t ESAS and Shuttle/ISS drastically cutting back on this kind of application (or similar robotic missions that would share costs with, or improve technology for, this kind of mission) from NASA? It seems that lately even most of the VSE’s lunar robotic plans are being scrapped. Is the NASA branch that’s putting out this document sneakily advocating a reversal of that? ESAS and Shuttle are designed and operated in-house by NASA with contractors following the NASA designs and operations. They seem to have little or nothing to do with these applications, unless they are suggesting that ESAS be eliminated, or totally redone commercially, so NASA can work on this kind of application.

    The slide also mentions space infrastructure and logistics. To me this term makes me think of Bigelow (or similar) space stations, space tugs, space refueling, and similar utility-like infrastructure. Again it seems like they are going against ESAS, because ESAS doesn’t use this kind of infrastructure.

    It mentions commerce “services”, but again ESAS is a NASA in-house effort. ESAS for the most part doesn’t use commercial services in the sense that I think of it. Are they recommending that ESAS be dropped in favor of NASA purchasing more services?

    Tourism is also mentioned, but ESAS has nothing to do with tourism. Are they recommending that ESAS be dropped in favor of an architecture that encourages space tourism (eg: by using commercial transportation vehicles that can also be used for space tourism)?

    On page 47 it says “NASA uniquely positioned to be a primary driver of innovation and competitiveness”. I thought ESAS was specifically not supposed to be innovative, so safe, tried-and-true vehicle components could easily be put together?

    Page 8 goes into “Science, Economic, Security” rationales. These, as central parts of the VSE, have already been discussed here many times in terms of ESAS not doing much for any of them compared to other options. Again it seems like some part of NASA is getting a jab in against ESAS and recommending a switch to some kind of architecture or mission with more relevance to “Science, Economy, and Security”.

  • First thing I would do would be to get some better music for those little NASA movies that explain their programs.

  • Thomas Matula


    Not to mention they are claiming credit for many things NASA had nothing to do with. From

    ASA Strategic Management Council 25 April 2007: Strategic Communications Framework Implementation Plan
    Date Released: Monday, July 2, 2007
    Source: NASA HQ

    [[[Members questioned some of the technologies cited in the testing as growing out of NASA research and development, stating that NASA does more fundamental than applied research. Porter specifically questioned including smoke detectors in the list and stated that there are aeronautics inventions that NASA can take full credit for having done the research. Members stressed the need to be accurate.]]]

  • […] the latter issue, he brings up some recent research (incorporated into NASA’s new strategic communications plan) regarding how people become more supportive of NASA once they realize the effect the […]

  • […] this summer, as you may recall, NASA completed a new strategic communications plan with a “core message” as its central theme: “NASA explores for answers that power […]

  • […] gave a luncheon speech in Washington to talk about the “space economy”, a concept part of the agency’s new strategic communications plan. His most noteworthy comment, though, came near the end of the Q&A session after his talk, […]

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