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Crisis Communications: Lessons From 4 NASA Tragedies

December 30, 2013

Jeff Weintraub

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The Space Shuttle Challenger, shortly after launch on Jan. 28, 1986.

IF EVER there were an organization that needs to be prepared to communicate about crises, it is NASA, our beloved, though often embattled space agency. It is so vast, complex and enterprise, involved in endeavors that skate on the edge of danger, something is sure to go wrong at NASA – as, tragically, it has over its 55-year history. For those of us in the communications game, it’s useful to look at how NASA responded publicly during some of its most well-known and heartbreaking crises.

Fortunately, Emily Ann Schult wrote just such an analysis of four NASA tragedies for her 2008 master’s thesis at Louisiana State University. I stumbled on it a few years ago when I was preparing a presentation on crisis communications.

I’m not in a position to verify every fact and claim Schult offers in this study, but her in-depth review of authoritative sources and interviews with several NASA communications officials, shine an instructive light on how the agency handled these four events. I’m offering a summary of her much more detailed description, which I commend to you if you want to learn more.

Apollo 1

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The Apollo 1 command module.

On January 27, 1967, a flash fire erupted in the Apollo 1 command module during a launch pad test, killing all three astronauts aboard – Gus Grissom, ‎Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

In the wake of the tragedy, Schult reported, it became clear that NASA: had no crisis plan for such an event; waited two hours to report deaths of astronauts; gave media misleading information about what happened;  refused to release other information until the investigation was complete; formed an investigative board made up only of people with close ties to NASA; published two reports about the accident with conflicting, sometimes false information; and lied in testimony to Congress.

The result, Schult said, was what you might expect: media went to other sources for information when they could not get what they needed from NASA; the agency lost credibility because of its release of misleading information; scrutiny from Congress, the White House, media and public increased about the investigative board and false statements; criticism persisted longer than it might have otherwise.

Apollo 13

This is the April 1970 mission well known for Commander James Lovell’s famously understated pronouncement, “Houston, we have a problem.” That problem came from an explosion aboard the craft that forced NASA to scrap its moon landing and improvise a dramatic rescue of the crew, which came close to being lost.

According to Schult’s research, Apollo 13 showed that NASA learned well from the Apollo 1 debacle and noticeably improved its crisis communications response. Indeed, it became clear during and after Apollo 13 that NASA: had a well-developed crisis plan; reported the problem quickly to the public; did not speculate about what happened, just gave facts when they were available; involved many spokespersons, including highly credible former astronauts and NASA’s top administrators; brought the astronauts back alive, framing the mission as “successful failure” (Lovell’s words); and quickly announced the formation of an investigation board– within 30 minutes after the crew returned to Earth.

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Apollo 13 astronauts return.

The result was mostly positive: NASA was praised by the public for a prompt and candid response; the public narrative was shaped by facts, not speculation; media, Congress and much of the rest of the public adopted the notion that Apollo 13 was a “successful failure” and lauded the astronauts and technicians on the ground as heroes (if that wasn’t obvious from the later-produced film directed by Ron Howard); and Congress gave NASA more money after the crisis than ever before. The only less-than-favorable outcome: because there were multiple spokespersons, some of whom contradicted others, the narrative got a little muddled or confused.

Challenger

On January 28, 1986, the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded (see photo above) in the Florida Coast skies fewer than two minutes after its launch, killing all seven of the astronauts aboard.

In spite of its nearly flawless crisis communications around Apollo 13, Schult found, NASA surprisingly: did not use its crisis plan; failed to hold regular press conferences and regularly kept information away from media, limiting its statements about the tragedy to only a few terse sentences; did not make top NASA personnel available for comment; and offered many spokespersons, some named, others not, on the rare occasions it did talk publicly.

As you might imagine, the result was not pretty. Schult reports that the press and public were highly critical and confused about the mission; the lack of any unified voice meant there were contradictory statements from many inside sources; NASA and its contractor were criticized for bad decision making and engineering (remember all the talk at the time about O-rings and Morton Thiokol?); NASA couldn’t maintain control of its message; the shuttle program effectively shut down pending correction of problems; and the space program overall lost respect and funding.

Columbia

After a largely productive 16-day mission, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated upon its February 1, 2003, reentry into the atmosphere because its protective heat tiles had been compromised. All seven astronauts perished.

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Shuttle chief Ron Dittemore during a news conference after the Columbia accident. Photo: Spaceflight Now/NASA TV

Like Apollo 13, the Columbia mission crisis communications response contrasted sharply with that of the previous tragedy, according to Schult’s account. The Columbia mission: followed crisis plan; immediately began releasing as much information as they could; held regular press conferences – some lasting an hour or two at a time – daily or more for weeks; refused to speculate on causes until they knew facts; offered only one highly credible and effective spokesperson, Ron Dittemore, the shuttle program manager; and released detailed results of investigations.

Because of this near-perfect response, Schult noted: NASA was praised for openness and candor and not criticized for accident when all the facts came out; though the Shuttle program was suspended for several years, it resumed sooner than many believe it might have; the public viewed the tragedy as a bitter outcome, but felt that they and NASA had learned from it.

There are many lessons crisis communications practitioners can derive from these four case studies. Among them:

Prepare, prepare, prepare. As I said earlier, virtually every organization, much less one engaged in inherently (though carefully controlled) risky activities as NASA, should think through every possible crisis scenario and game out how the organization should respond in the event they materialize. That means having all the knowable facts at your fingertips even before the crisis occurs and making sure you map out who will be involved in the response and how you will assemble your leadership team quickly. Then you must practice your response through simulations with all of the principal leadership, including those at the highest levels.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. This doesn’t mean just talking endlessly even when there’s nothing new to say (leave that to the news outlets, which have no problem offering constant “breaking news” updates, even when there is no real news to break). But you have to communicate early and often. Ron Dittemore’s regular press conferences and other briefings in the wake of the Columbia were great examples of how an organization benefits from keeping the flow of information steady as the facts become available. It ensures that your narrative, not misleading speculation or theories others conjure, defines the public conversation. It also builds trust that you’re doing everything possible to get to the bottom of what happened and how you will proceed.

Make sure your leadership is engaged in the response. Rudolph Giuliani won praise following the September 11 attacks for being the primary point of information as the public tried to sort out what happened and what the authorities were doing to address the crisis. At moments like that, people want to hear from the most credible voice, and as Mayor of New York City, Giuliani played that role expertly. Contrast that with the impression BP CEO Tony Hayward gave in his detached statements about the company’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That set back the company’s response considerably and distracted the public from its core narrative.

Get out there quickly. Especially in the early stages of a crisis, silence is not an option, which is why the Apollo 1 delayed response was so damaging to the agency. News travels fast and you have to tell your side of the story first. Otherwise, you will spend a lot of energy trying to correct the story and will play defense. What’s more, it’s essential these days to respond through social media because that’s where much of the conversation about a crisis takes place. You want to be part of that conversation, or at least aware of what people in it are saying.

Communicate how you’re going to move forward. Talk clearly and in detail about what you’re doing to understand the problem, avoid a recurrence and address the concerns of anyone who was hurt by it. The announcement, a mere 30 minutes after the Apollo 13 astronauts returned safely to Earth, of a blue-ribbon investigation panel was exemplary, but the job should not have ended there. Organizations need to continue to report on how investigations like this and the remediation that follows is progressing.

Tell the truth. Do I have to explain this one?

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