NASA’s new plan for talking at us, part I

by guest blogger Ken

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in NASA’s new “Strategic Communications Framework Implementation Plan” that I grabbed over at NASAWatch. Unfortunately, it is a 79 page .ppt, which makes the prising of any real information out of it difficult (but it sho ’nuff looks clever), though I did notice quite a few interesting details as I waited for the dial-up download of 2.4 megs.

Things get interesting on page 7, the ‘Brand Balance Sheet’ (which is really the first part of a SWOT analysis, but whatever). Strengths are noted as Near Universal Awareness (no duh, Sherlocks), Enormous Public Appreciation, High Support, and Wide Appeal. Weaknesses are noted as Little Specific Knowledge, Lack of Relevance, Low Excitement, Disconnect from Activities, and Lack of Current Context, with the admonition that the NASA should focus communications resources and measure on a regular basis the first three of those.

Personally I think that all five of the weaknesses should be addressed, especially the last, Lack of Current Context. The reason that I ‘no duh’ed the first strength is because NASA awareness is global. It wasn’t the U.S. that put humanity on the Moon, it was NASA, and that brand name carries an enormous amount of good will everywhere in the world. But the ‘Lack of Current Context’ is huge, as it is the underpinning of the Lack of Relevance and Low Excitement.

Slide 8 breaks down the rough demographics, noting that the “base” of support is the 45-64 year olds, labeled “The Apollo Generation”, with men more biased to exploration than women. This demographic more or less aligns with the Baby Boomers.

The other audiences are:
18 – 24 year olds, who have little or no frame of reference for the space program. This demographic aligns with Gen Y
25 – 44 year olds, whose frame of reference is tragedy. Boy, ain’t that the truth- Challenger -and- Columbia. This is of course Gen X. (For the record I am at the front end of Gen X)
65+ years old is when the interest starts tapering off. This demographic roughly corresponds to “The Greatest Generation” and the “Tweeners” (the 1940s version of Gen X).

What are the Key Metrics by age? It’s a little hard to tell because the chart in the Appendix either has an error or is divvied up funny. For Moon excitement, the results were as follows:

Somewhat or Very Excited
65+: 36%
45-64: 49%
18-34: 52%

Only Slightly or Not at All
65+: 63%
45-64: 51%
18-34: 47%

For Mars, the results are a lot closer to the Moon than has been the case in Gallup polls. Here:

Somewhat or Very Excited
65+: 37%
35-64: 47%
18-34: 55%

Only Slightly or Not at All
65+: 63%
35-64: 52%
18-34: 45%

So one of the break points is either 35 or 45, but either way Gen X is getting hosed, like usual. Either way, it doesn’t correspond with the breakdown given in the body of the report, so I’m not sure what real lessons can be drawn from the data.

I think another aspect of the lack of current context is shown on slide 14, which grouped the responses to what people thought NASA did:
-Space Exploration (27%)
-Space, Space Program (17%)
-Research or Experiments (17%)
-Space Vehicles, Satellites (14%)
-Science/Technology/Products (13%)
-Spend too much $$ (6%)
-Aerospace/Aeronautics (4%)

I would like to see item #4 broken out, as apparently few people really see launching as NASA’s business. This is a very, very interesting little tidbit, especially in light of the fact that the ESAS launch architecture is basically eating NASA’s lunch right now. Also interesting is slide 15, where folks are asked if they’d heard about NASA in the news recently (the surveys were done in Feb. 2007), what it was (50% said astronaut scandal), and whether it left a positive/negative/no difference impression. 75% of yeses said no diff.

Next they go into the general impressions of NASA vs. different organizations, with NASA of course coming out very well (76% fav, 39% very), though beaten out by the CDC which had a lower unfavorable rating. 71% thought NASA should continue with Space Exploration, but only 53% saw NASA as relevant in some way, shape or form in their everyday lives.

Slide 20 then flips that last result on its head. After taking the initial response, the surveyors then ‘exposed’ the responders to technologies that NASA has played a role in developing (notice – not ‘spinoffs’, but rather a role in development, which is how I spin it at public events) and then asked the question again, to which a full 94% expressed a sense of the relevance of NASA, with extremely relevant jumping from 16% to 65%. That’s huge! This is a strategy that directly addresses the question of Lack of Current Context. People aren’t seeing the good work that comes out of NASA -now-, so they have nothing to put in the context of relevance. This is exactly why I try to distribute ‘Spinoff’ booklets and CD at outreach events. People love the technology. They like being informed about it. They like it being free information.

The two biggest drivers for the big swing to relevance? Smoke Detector technologies (I’m guessing the sensing intruments) and Advanced Breast Cancer Imaging technologies, though Heart Defibrillators and Weather Satellites helped,as did Remote-Controlled Robots, GPS (Say what?), Cordless Tools (one of my favorites, from the battery technology to deliver torque they had to develop for the Apollo tools), Satellite Radio & DirecTV (say what?).

Given the technologies just listed, which I can see as being very misleading to a member of the general public, I really have problems with slide 23. What, are people going to think that NASA developed Dish TV? Well, yeah probably. Slide 23 asks, on a scale of 0 – 10, when thinking about NASA and all its activities (GPS! XM Radio! DirecTV!), how much of a contribution do you think NASA makes to the US economy?

Initially, those rankings at 7 and above were 41% of the total, breaking down as 13/16/5/7 from 7 to 10 (which is ‘Extremely large’ contribution). Once informed, the total at 7 and above was 75%. That’s an 83% increase! It broke down as 13/23/14/25. Most of this shift came from 5s (20% to 8%), 4s & 3s (both 8% to 2%), and 0s (10% to 3%).

It’s the shift in the 10s, from 7% to 25% of respondents, that raises the red flag in the back of my brain about how people are understanding the technology message they just got. If people were really seeing NASA as playing a role in the development, but not actually running it, I think the shift would have been more to 6s (which stayed constant at 8%), 7s and 8s.

I think NASA has to be really careful how they play the technology card, as it could create a backlash if misplayed as ‘NASA is responsible for…’ instead of ‘NASA helped with…and here’s how’.

Moving forward to my personal interest, we get to slide 27 and ‘Moon Mission Awareness’. A full 36% of respondents had heard nothing at all, which is abysmal, and a full 58% said eh, Some/Not Much, while only 6% had breathed the Moon dust and responded A Lot. Once informed of the fact that yes, there is the intention to go back to the Moon, a full 30% said ‘Yeah, and…?” (okay, Not At All Excited). A full 53% said ‘That’s cool’ (Somewhat/Only Slightly Excited), with a big jump to 15% of those excited about a return to our Moon.

Looking at the Reasons to Explore Space (slide 29), technology was the big Very Strong at 52% and total Strong of 80%, Inspiration and encouraging students was second at 37% Very Strong/78% total Strong, Setting Up a Moonbase for Useful Tasks was just behind at 37% Very Strong, but only 77% total Strong, and Moon for Development of new Energy Technologies pulled in a strong fourth at 35%/70%. Pulling up the rear were Explore Space to Stimulate Economy/New Jobs at 33%/72%, Satisfaction of Curiosity at 30%/70%, Flags and Footprints at 30%/65%, and Learning to Live Offplanet was 29%/57%.

Wait, there’s more! Moon for Technology Testbed – 27%/70%, International Peace – 26%/64%, US Leadership in Exploration – 25%/62%, and Further Exploration of Moon for Knowledge Advancements and Improved Earthly Lives was at 21%/51%.

Slide 32 again touches on the Lack of Current Context. In focus groups, Credible Information is grouped as ‘Preexisting belief that NASA plays major role in technology’ and ‘Preexisting belief that NASA work has led to major everyday contributions’. Under New Information is the factoid that ‘Little, if any, specific knowledge of how NASA contributes or what it has done’. I don’t understand how the slide is laid out, but that last point is critical, and again reinforces my concern that the people aren’t understanding the contribution when associating technology with NASA.

The next slide reveals some underlying attitudes and disconnects.
-Participants not necesssarily for or against Moon/Mars missions, just wanted to know ‘Why do these missions?’
-Leadership, legacy and public inspiration seen as less-persuasive reasons, especially for Moon.
-Most agreed international partnerships probably beneficial, but sceptical would happen.

The Take-Away from the surveys is shown as follows:
1) NASA’s overall public image remains high and a large number of Americans believe continuing space exploration is important
2) However, fewer Americans rate NASA as relevant to their daily lives and perceptions of NASA’s economic contribution vary
3) Telling people about specific NASA-related technologies has a tremendous impact on both relevance and economic measures
4) Among messages tested, there were no “weak” reasons for continuing space exploration, though some reasons were stronger than others
5) When talking about NASA programs and activities, framing NASA communications in terms of relevance and benefits is most effective

Since I took so long putting this together, Jeff Foust has done his own critique of “NASA’s new outreach plan” over at The Space Review. I’m not going to critique his critique, but he also noted the big swing in the relevance factor, calling it staggering. He doesn’t dwell much on the studies, just hitting on the highlights (making it an easier read), but I do appreciate the ISDC shout-out in the article. The bulk of the article discusses the Message Architecture and New Message Platform, which I’m going to visit in the next post.

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4 Responses to NASA’s new plan for talking at us, part I

  1. Dru says:

    Wow, Ken. Usually I’m a big fan of your guest posts, but what’s with the generational attack at GenX?

    Especially considering they’re likely to be significant part of the new/alt.space workforce. Last I checked most of MSS is Gen X.

    Maybe you were trying to be clever, but it came across instead as petty and insulting, which stripped away your rhetoric about communication rather effectively.

  2. murphydyne says:

    I am Gen X. It was not an attack on Gen X, but rather the kinds of attitudes and disrespect that we have to deal with. Such as being marginalized in the media, or having Gen X opinions ignored or divvied up into other groups, diluting our voice.

    Since I work in a bank (at the trading desk at the moment), I get to see all kinds of myriad stuff that the general public doesn’t get to see, and I gotta tell you that I am very, very, very unhappy about what’s being done to our economy. And it ain’t the Gen Xers doing it, either.

    Tell you what, I’ll go back and insert some /sarcasm/ tags to better offset the snarks.

  3. murphydyne says:

    Okay, you were right, Dru. The sarcastic pontificating about generational inequities didn’t really need to be there, so I excised it.

  4. dru says:

    No worries Ken, reading emotive tone over the net is hard, which is why I asked (more harshly than I intended to as well).

    A great article as always… I really wish they had a better break down of the binning for the report. What’s support like for people who actually contribute to state of the art.

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