NASA's Public Relations Problem
At 8:00 AM CDT on February 1, 2003, all communications were lost with the space shuttle Columbia (STS-107) as the craft disintegrated during re-entry over the clear blue skies of north Texas. The shuttle was at an altitude of 207,135 feet traveling at approximately Mach 18.3 at the time of the accident. Do you think that NASA was thinking about public relations at a time like this? I, naïve as I tend to be, do not think so. Space flight is an extremely risky business. In that regard, I don't necessarily believe that NASA, a government agency, utilizes an integrated marketing communications program per se, but NASA has had to focus on similar goals that include; improving external communications with the public in general, as well as providing unprecedented levels of data and information to outside agencies involved in the crash investigation, re-evaluation of the remaining space shuttles with regard to engineering scrutiny and overall air/space worthiness all the while understanding the need for decorum, integrity and privacy as it pertains to investigative results and details with regard to the surviving family members of the lost shuttle crewmembers.
NASA is walking a fine line. As previously mentioned, they must be cognizant of what types of information are released with respect to family members and colleagues, as well as not being perceived publicly that they are hindering efforts to get to the facts of the accident. The media are similar to rabid dogs or sharks when it comes to unrelenting pressure to provide answers, it matters little to the press that answers that lack engineering review or data from telemetry are unsubstantiated to say the least. If the media does not get their way, they will write stories that are centered on NASA concealing information. I truly don't believe that the media really cares about what they are reporting on, as long as they have the proverbial "scoop" and receive national exposure and accolades for being outstanding "investigators". If you think back to the television coverage of the event, how long was it before reporters were describing "body parts" littered about the landscape? I really don't think that this type of coverage benefited anyone.
On May 14, 2003, The Honorable Sean O'Keefe, Administrator for NASA appeared before a U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to discuss and receive testimony about the accident. Joining Mr. O'Keefe was retired Navy Admiral Harold W. "Hal" Gehman Jr., chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). The hearing was covered live on CSPAN as well as by network, print and international media. This hearing afforded NASA and the CAIB the ability to state the facts as they were known at the time to the committee and general public. While their presence to provide testimony was an "invitation" by the committee, their statements are NASA's and CAIB's public relations voices at the highest...