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How NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab Is Branding Deep Space Missions

While NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory innovates space technology, its media relations department applies a similar inventiveness to its social media strategies. Here, Veronica McGregor—creator of the NASA Social and Mars rover Twitter accounts—discusses how it’s branding this year’s deep space missions, and the lessons learned by staying authentic and listening to followers in past social media campaigns.

How NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab Is Branding Deep Space Missions
[Illustration: courtesy of NASA]

It’s the Year of the Icy World.

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With several interplanetary missions ramping up or hitting milestones this year, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wanted a more cohesive way to educate media and space enthusiasts about projects managed by the Pasadena, California-based space center or involving its scientists.

On March 6, the Dawn probe will begin orbiting Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. New Horizons will fly within 7750 miles of the Pluto system on July 14. Cassini, exploring the Saturn system since 2004, will fly by Saturn’s moons Dione and Enceladus, through the latter’s 30-mile-high water geysers on its surface, later this year. And the Europa Clipper plans are underway for an eventual journey to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, which may contain a giant sub-surface ocean harboring life. Information gleaned from these missions may offer clues as to the formation of the solar system and building blocks of life.

Thus the Icy Worlds brand was born—launched by inviting traditional and social media players earlier last month to “chill with JPL scientists at Icy Worlds Media Day,” by touring mission centers, and hearing presentations from participants.

Veronica McGregor.

“It’s a better experience for media to stay for half a day and learn about three or four missions at once, instead of one at a time,” says Veronica McGregor, JPL’s manager of media relations and social media. “So instead of doing one icy world, it just made sense to wrap them together, so people understand it’s thematic.

“There are scientists working on multiple missions at one time, and every mission has scientists from all over,” she adds. “The New Horizons mission to Pluto is run by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. But one of the JPL scientists here happens to be working on it, so she can talk about it.”

Branding on a Budget

JPL has long stood out among NASA divisions for pioneering clever ways to grab audiences—like its 7 Minutes of Terror video explaining the Curiosity landing technology. It’s a strategy born from NASA rules disallowing paid advertising, and the number of former reporters and producers in its media relations ranks.

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“I have two other members on my team to help with social media,” says McGregor, a former CNN producer. “We ran the entire Curiosity campaign and 20 other missions and projects. We would go to events, like South-by-Southwest, and see corporate social media efforts that were war rooms of people and monitors. Here, it’s just the three of us.”

In 2008, McGregor created the first Mars spacecraft Twitter account, and the following year, the NASA Tweetups, which became the NASA Socials, now employed agency-wide. It’s a program granting NASA-engaged social media users similar credentials and access as traditional journalists so they can spread space agency news among their communities. Such strategies—not readily apparent back then—unassumingly blossomed in a way no one foresaw.

Humanizing technology

McGregor and her team were trying to figure out how to spread the word about the Mars lander, Phoenix, which had the temerity to land on Mars on Memorial Day weekend.

“I thought no one would get any news about this mission, because no one would be paying attention,” she says. “I thought about sending messages to cell phones, when someone mentioned they’d heard about Twitter. I looked it up, and it was free. We set up an account, @MarsPhoenix, and started posting updates three weeks before the landing.”

There was one quirk—Mcgregor gave the craft a personality. The Mars Phoenix account bio read “I dig Mars”—a play on its mission to dig samples in the planet’s polar region—and posted in the first person.

A compilation selfie of the Phoenix on Mars looking down from above.NASA

“The companies already on Twitter were just posting press release headlines, and it looked boring,” says McGregor. “Then I’d see people posting their own accounts, which were very conversational and a lot more fun. I posted in the third and first person to see what would happen, and everyone responded to the first person, asking questions, wishing good luck on the landing. Then bloggers started writing about it, and it ended up being the fifth most followed account on Twitter that summer. [Twitter co-founder] Biz Stone called it the best unexpected use of Twitter he’d ever seen.”

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Along the way, they learned and incorporated some valuable lessons about engagement:

We learned from our followers. The first picture Phoenix tweeted from Mars was worse than a selfie—just a black and white shot of a solar panel. Followers were exasperated. “Why did they do that?” they responded. “Don’t they have color cameras?”

McGregor laughs at the memory. “We’d never explained to people why the first picture was going to be of the solar panel,” she says. “If that hadn’t opened, the mission would have died in one hour. And we did have color cameras. We just assumed people knew these little details. Now we don’t assume anything. We even started rewriting our press releases to explain in advance some of the mission nuances.”

Veronica McGregor (foreground) and her staff live-tweeting the Curiosity landing in 2012.Photo courtesy of Veronica McGregor.

Really interact with your audience. “People were amazed that NASA was actually answering their questions,” says McGregor. “We spent the better part of 2008 working that Twitter account to keep it as conversational as possible. Our goal has always been that more than 50% of our tweets be replies. We don’t just push news out—it’s not as fun and engaging, and I don’t think we’d have as many followers as we do.”

Be authentic. “If you’re not authentic and honest, you’ll come under fire,” she adds. “I made sure people knew the spacecraft itself wasn’t tweeting, and had daily teleconferences with the mission team, so I always knew the latest science. You don’t want to overstate discoveries or the health of the mission.”

An artist’s rendering of Phoenix.Image courtesy of NASA

Saying Goodbye and The Advent of the NASA Social

When the Phoenix mission came to an expected end that fall (after the sun got too low to charge the solar panels), McGregor found herself the caretaker of 40,000 mourners.

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“There was a huge outpouring of grief from the followers,” says McGregor. “A lot of people were in tears. I was in tears composing the final tweet. I’d been preparing people for weeks: ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m very happy,’ ‘I’ll be here for eons.’ It makes me choke up still to talk about it. I thought a lot about it—how do you tweet after you’ve supposedly lost contact? I ultimately decided on binary code, as its last gasp of communication back to Earth. I was sure there were followers who could translate it.“

Phoenix’s final word was an inside joke with followers. The first on the Phoenix Twitter feed were devotees of the puzzle game, Portal, which has an end credit song that begins, ‘This is a triumph.’ “That summer, I kept getting tweets with those lyrics, so I knew the word ‘Triumph’ was going to resonate,” she says.

“It didn’t take a second before the first person tweeted back ‘Triumph.'”

Now what?

“I’d encouraged them to join other JPL Twitter accounts before Phoenix died,” says McGregor. “But it would have been insane to leave 40,000 people just sitting there, and inauthentic to change the name of the account, so I decided to do a NASA Social—or Tweetup, as it was called then—as a way of thanking followers, bringing them together, and giving them special access.”

Jim McClure is operations manager for JPL’s mission control center, which monitors NASA’s Deep Space Network.Photo by Susan Karlin

The first, in January 2009, enabled 130 participants (paying their own way to JPL) to speak with mission scientists and engineers, view an under-construction Curiosity, and tour the mission control area of NASA’s Deep Space Network, that monitors interplanetary and Earth-orbiting probes.

“We worried that we wouldn’t be able to get people to drive across town in LA. But the day we opened, we had applications from all over the world,” says McGregor. “At the event, many met each other for the first time face-to-face. It united them as a group and they became very cohesive. They created their own Facebook communities and local events. There’s now a NASA Social alumni group of 3,000 or more out there following and retweeting comments from subsequent NASA Socials.”

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Gaging each audience

JPL now manages one umbrella and more than 20 mission-specific Twitter accounts—including those for Dawn, Cassini, and eventually, Europa—drawing more than 5.3 million total followers. (New Horizons is managed by another agency.) With all that traffic, you’d think they’d encountered all manner of responses, but every so often they’re thrown a curve ball.

A 2013 NASA Social at JPL’s Deep Space Network.Image courtesy of Veronica McGregor

Take the Asteroid Watch Twitter account, established to alert its 1.2 million followers to news about near-Earth objects, which JPL manages for NASA. It’s JPL’s second-largest account after Curiosity’s 1.8 million followers. Asteroids passing close to Earth present exciting prospects for scientists seeking data, but unnerving ones for Doomsday prophets.

“Whereas the other accounts attract space enthusiasts, this account is more about allaying panic,” says McGregor. “We let people know in advance that the pass will be safe. It’s also become a place where people started reporting strange sightings—mostly fireballs [very bright meteors]. We got some of the first tweets of the Chelyabinsk meteor and shockwave. That’s when we started waking up our meteor experts.”

Two magnified views of Ceres taken 10 hours apart by the Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 12, from 52,000 miles.NASA

Buzz Begat Press

Slowly, social media began to effect the way traditional media covered JPL and other NASA divisions. Their buzz prompted calls from reporters.

“People didn’t realize what was involved in covering a mission, how difficult it was to maneuver the spacecraft,” says McGregor. “Before, the media tended to cover launches, landings, and bad news. But as people began hearing and taking about about little milestone on social media, the press became interested in covering that kind of news. There’s a huge number of space and science advocates, and they’re starved for that material.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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