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Lunar exploration illustration
Rather than emphasize the Vision for Space Exploration, NASA’s new strategic communications plan focuses on the technological and economic benefits accrued by such exploration. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

NASA’s new outreach plan

It has long been a central tenet of the space advocacy community that the public would be more willing to support NASA—and, in turn, press the White House and Congress to give NASA more money—if the general public simply knew more about what NASA did and how it was relevant to them. Such statements are usually accompanied by sighs of disappointment about how NASA isn’t doing a good job of public outreach today. If only NASA could come up with the right message that resonated with the public—and advocates usually have no shortage of ideas, often conflicting with one another—and the right way to get that message across, these people muse, the days of tight NASA budgets would be a thing of the past.

Now, NASA is making a new effort to better communicate the agency’s missions, goals, and relevance. Last week NASA rolled out a new strategic communications plan, the result of a long-term effort to gauge how the American public perceives NASA and how to communicate NASA’s efforts in a way that will be positively accepted by the public. Included in the plan is both a new core message and new ways of telling that message to the general public. However, how effective can than plan be, and just how important is such public outreach?

NASA: important, but not relevant

The “Strategic Communications Framework Implementation Plan” was formally released by NASA’s Office of Strategic Communication last Tuesday (The Space Review obtained an advance copy of the presentation, which is now available online.) The purpose of the plan is to “put forward specific messages and initiatives” that are based on work done by the office to identify ways to increase public support for the agency and its activities.

“NASA has a very high overall public image,” said NASA’s Hopkins. “However, people don’t find NASA’s work to be relevant to their daily lives. That’s on us, because we have to explain how it’s relevant.”

While the overall plan was released just last week, one key element of it, the market research commissioned by NASA to determine how the public currently perceives the space agency, was discussed during a presentation by Robert Hopkins, chief of strategic communications at NASA, during a panel session of the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Dallas in late May. That research provided a mix of good and bad news for NASA.

The good news was that a vast majority of the general public had a favorable impression of the agency: 76 percent, comparable to the Centers for Disease Control and better than other agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service (which, despite its poor reputation, still had a favorable impression in the minds of 49 percent of the public). That market research also found that 71 percent thought that it was very or somewhat important that NASA continue with space exploration.

The bad news, though, is that much of the public feels disconnected with NASA. Only 53 percent considered NASA extremely or somewhat relevant to their lives. The survey also showed limited awareness and excitement around NASA’s core program, the Vision for Space Exploration. Asked about NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon by 2020, only 35 percent said they heard “some” or “a lot” about it, and only 46 percent said they were somewhat or very excited about it. The numbers were only slightly higher about longer-term human missions to Mars.

“NASA has a very high overall public image,” Hopkins said at the ISDC. “However, people don’t find NASA’s work to be relevant to their daily lives. That’s on us, because we have to explain how it’s relevant.”

One way to make NASA more relevant, he suggested, is to play up NASA’s role in developing key technologies. In the market research, people were “exposed” to technologies NASA had a hand in developing, from weather satellites to smoke detectors to remote-controlled robots. Not surprisingly, a majority of people thought such technologies, in and of themselves, were somewhat or very relevant to their lives. Afterwards, people were asked again if NASA was relevant to them, and the change was staggering: 94 percent now said NASA was somewhat or extremely relevant, with 65 percent answering extremely relevant alone. Those results translated into increased support for space exploration: after the exposure to NASA-related technologies, 80 percent said it was somewhat or very important for NASA to continue space exploration.

Exploring for answers

The market research suggests that NASA can be made more relevant, and thus its support strengthened among the general public, by better communicating how the work NASA does improves everyday life. In an effort to do so, the agency has developed a new “core message” to impress upon the public, one that can be summarized in a single sentence: “NASA explores for answers that power our future.” The last part of that sentence—“power our future”—is designed to explain why NASA matters, and has several meanings in the document: “saves lives”, “improves lives”, “inspires students”, “stimulates economy”, and “protects planet”.

The document also defines “future” as the sum of three separate concepts: inspiration, innovation, and discovery. Inspiration, according to the plan, “encourages future generations to explore, learn and build a better future.” Innovation “creates new jobs, new markets and new technologies”, with a particular emphasis on the technologies that enhanced NASA’s relevance in the minds of the general public. Finally, discovery “enables us to learn more about ourselves, our world and how to manage and protect it.”

The agency has developed a new “core message” to impress upon the public, one that can be summarized in a single sentence: “NASA explores for answers that power our future.”

In addition to this core message, NASA has formulated a separate “message platform” designed for more specific audiences, called “The Space Economy”. As defined by NASA, the Space Economy is “the full range of activities and use of resources that create and provide value and benefits to human beings in the course of exploring, understanding and utilizing space.” This concept includes various technologies, applications, and sectors of the economy that are either directly involved in space or somehow enabled by space-related technologies and applications.

Hopkins said at the ISDC that the Space Economy concept is a means of reintroducing a competitive element to the space program that had largely been missing since the end of the Space Race with the Soviet Union nearly 40 years ago. “This new competitive landscape is the global economy,” he said. “We feel as though innovation and competitiveness are key drivers of the global economy, and we think NASA is in a unique position to be drivers of innovation and competitiveness for the nation.”

The plan calls for NASA to establish “thought leadership” on the Space Economy concept, including developing economic models, indicators, and impact analyses to better quantify the role it plans on the nation’s economy in general. “This can lead to a de facto rebranding of NASA in terms of relevance and benefits for our target audiences,” the plan states.

Web 2.0 and NASA’s big five-oh

The document also describes how NASA plans to implement the plan and communicate those messages to the public. That effort will be linked with NASA’s year-long celebration, starting this October, of its 50th anniversary (the agency was officially created on October 1, 1958.) The core message and related themes will be used in a variety of 50th anniversary events, including a series of “NASA Future Forums” around the country: one-day conferences about the role of innovation in economic development, in particular the role NASA plays. Also in the works are a lecture series, new public service announcements, and targeted outreach to state and local leaders linked to upcoming shuttle missions.

Online media will also play a role in this outreach effort. According to the document, NASA is in the process of redesigning its web site to leverage a suite of technologies and techniques collectively known as “Web 2.0” that emphasize communication and collaboration among users. The new web site will include dynamic, customizable content; “social bookmarks” akin to web sites like Digg and; and the ability for the public to comment on NASA content. The document also mentions the creation of a “NASATube” and “NASApedia”, presumably similar to the video-sharing site YouTube and editable encyclopedia Wikipedia, respectively.

“People are kind of ambivalent about the Moon and Mars missions,” Hopkins said. “They want to know why, and how it benefits them.”

It’s too soon to say, of course, how well this core message and its implementation will register with the public. It’s interesting to note that, by focusing on themes like economic leadership, spinoffs, and relevance to the public, this approach is almost completely independent of NASA’s current goals as articulated by the Vision for Space Exploration. That is, if a new administration came into office in 2009 and decided to take the agency in a different direction from a human return to the Moon, the same core message and emphasis on public relevance and economic competitiveness could remain virtually intact.

“People are kind of ambivalent about the Moon and Mars missions,” Hopkins said in May. “They want to know why, and how it benefits them.” The plan included a quote from one participant in a focus group session, who said, “If you have a reason to do it (going to the Moon) I don’t have a problem with it. I just don’t see at as ‘Geez, let’s just go and do this again and spend all this money’ when it could be going towards something else.”

All this, though, raises a bigger issue: just how important and effective is raising public awareness of NASA’s relevance and activities? NASA is not a high national priority and is unlikely to become one for the foreseeable future, given all the attention currently devoted to issues like Iraq, terrorism, immigration, and the economy, none of which will be fading away any time soon. In such a political landscape, can increasing the awareness of NASA’s relevance do much to encourage people to increase their support for NASA and demand more money for the agency’s activities?

One can argue that, in the long term, the pressures on the overall federal budget that exist today will only grow stronger, particularly as members of the Baby Boomer generation begin to retire, putting an added strain on entitlements programs. In such an environment, even low-profile agencies like NASA, which accounts for only about 0.6 percent of the overall federal budget, will make tempting targets if they can’t justify their benefit to the nation. Raising awareness about NASA and its relevance to the general public may thus be less about increasing the agency’s share of the federal budget than it is about making sure that it doesn’t get any smaller.