Neil's News

Public Relations

22 September 2003

A few hours ago Galileo vapourised itself in Jupiter's upper atmosphere right on schedule. I was watching the live special on NASA TV over the Internet. For two hours they talked about all things Galileo: the scientific results, the navigational challenges, the scheduling problems. Everything except the fact that the main antenna never opened -- the single biggest operational event of the mission. It was surreal, like listening to the Iraqi Information Minister.

One of the reasons I watched the event was to learn details of how they had compressed the data for transmission through the low-gain antenna and salvage the mission. But not a single word was said about it. NASA is known for being very shrewd with Public Relations. They know how to turn near failure into heroic success (see Apollo 13). But apparently they aren't currently comfortable enough with the press to try spinning a story. I think that they are afraid that a post-Columbia media might unspin NASA's story and use it against them.

When used skilfully, Public Relations unleashes almost unlimited power. An unemployed woman in Inverness managed, almost single handedly, to shut down Dounreay, Britain's largest nuclear power plant. The money, the facts and the local community were all against her, but she played the media better than Dounraey's PR firm, and won.

It seems that whenever Public Relations is successfully employed, things quickly degenerate into inaccuracies/lies (see Iraq's WMD), content-free sound-bytes (see any election) or childish/illegal stunts (see Greenpeace). I cannot think of a single sustained successful PR campaign which obtained my respect. And that scares me.

The more I learn about Public Relations, the less I want to be involved with the it, either as a consumer or a producer of it. I won't forget the poor engineer who was excitedly talking about NASA's next Jupiter mission: how its impulse ratio would surpass Galileo's, how its instrument energy levels would be so much better than Galileo's and how its communications bandwidth... He froze as he tried to figure out how to finish the sentence without mentioning the forbidden topic.

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