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PR Strategy: The corporate world could learn something from NASA's openness


Together with Richard Jurek, David Meerman Scott wrote the book 'Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program'. The book delves very deep into Apollo 11's voyage to the moon in 1969, particularly the PR surrounding the launch, which can serve as a case study for the whole PR industry.

Meerman Scott talks about his findings in the Marketing Book Podcast. He mainly addresses the issue of why there was so much openness surrounding that programme; it was far more about informing than about steering opinion in a particular direction (although the importance of that openness was naturally also there). From the podcast introduction on the site: ,,American astronauts, who signed exclusive agreements with Life magazine, became the heroic and patriotic faces of the program. And there was some judicious product placement: Hasselblad was the "first camera on the moon"; Sony cassette recorders and supplies of Tang were on board the capsule, and astronauts were equipped with the Exer-Genie personal exerciser. Everyone wanted a place on the bandwagon.''

Press pack
It was also striking that all companies that had anything at all to do with the launch, such as Hasselblad which arranged the photography, had a press pack. Meerman Scott: ,,I purchased six Apollo 11 press packs and digitised them, and they're very interesting: it is actually content marketing, because all those companies wanted to associate themselves with the moon.'' Many companies involved had sold weapons for the Vietnam war. ,,It was in their interest to get the public and the media to think; those are good companies.'' Besides, NASA only employed a small number of PR people at the time, because they relied on 'contractors' (suppliers, like builders) for PR, while something like 3000 journalists were accredited to follow Apollo 11. Those NASA people couldn't handle it, so it often fell to the contractors…. ,,If someone wanted to know how to take photos on the moon, they were directed to Hasselblad.''

Meerman Scott describes the case in detail and also addresses the PR 'mistakes' that were made. In his view, there was too much focus on the moon landing itself. ,,What NASA did was create a narrative with just one question: how are we going to get to the moon. The origin of that even goes back a little further, to John F Kennedy who said in a 1962 speech: we will go to the moon and come back alive before the decade is over. There was just one goal: to reach the moon, and that was it.'' The ambition harks back to the old explorers… But once that mission had succeeded, literally and figuratively, interest in the programme dissipated. Why would the public still be interested after that? There have only been five more voyages to the moon since Apollo 11. ,,Those were scientific missions where there was so much to learn, but the marketing after Apollo 11 wasn't good. NASA of course had to have a reason to spend all that money, but it's tricky. A new story was needed.''

Meerman Scott also links the moon landing to brand journalism, about which he writes a great deal in his books. ,,NASA strongly believed in that; they had films for schools, glossy photos, and created stories.''

No free rides
In the book, Meerman Scott quotes Julian Scheer, NASA's longtime head of PR, who says: ,,We did not participate in propaganda, we don't give away free rides, and did not hang around in the press lounge. So it's a news operation, we spread news.'' Meerman Scott: ,,I think it is an important case study for that reason. Julian had a background in journalism; don't forget that NASA and other political organisations had many secrets. Everything was always secret before the Apollo 11 programme, and yet Julian Scheer said: we do it openly. For example, all communication logs between the astronauts and mission control during the voyage were made public. We saw live images of the time spent on the moon.'' Meerman Scott compares that to the present: ,,There is so much value in being open. That is one of the biggest things NASA has left behind; everything was live.''

An interesting question is whether you still encounter that openness today. Shouldn't we be watching the Ministerial Consultation live, shouldn't we know far more about Willem-Alexander's working life, what do we actually know about what goes on behind the scenes in The Hague? And what about companies? Do we not know too litte about them? Should we install cameras in the changing rooms so we can hear Louis van Gaal or Gareth Southgate talking during half-time? Jos Govaart, co-founder of Coopr, thinks politics could use a little more openness. ,,In the media, the reporting is always on political choices, but the government could clarify policy a little more. It is often about egos and party interests in the House of Representatives, but I want an explanation of the choices made in plain language. Do you still remember that programme that Bridget Maasland and Katja Schuurman made together for BNN? In it, they asked politicians normal questions. In my opinion, you see too few of those types of programmes.'' The corporate world could also certainly learn something from NASA's openness, that you simply tell an honest story in a way that everyone understands it. ,,We have actually done a Q&A for Facebook Live during Coolblue's presentation of the annual results in which everyone could ask Pieter Zwart normal questions. That's great stuff, right? I think that should always be the core of politics as well as the corporate world; explaining to people who buy your products or services why you do what you do. They understood that well at NASA.''

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