Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Communicating About Space with the Public

You know, I've heard "NASA doesn't communicate well with the public" quite a few times lately, and it's starting to grate, mostly because I'm one of the folks helping the agency communicate. It's certainly not for lack of trying...conference papers, speeches, brochures, presentations, NASA TV,, Facebook, Twitter, FlickR...and yet I hear that that's still not enough. Or we're using the wrong channels. Or we're boring. My personal opinion is that the general public just doesn't give a flip about space, and the jazziest marketing campaign on Earth wouldn't matter a tinker's dam if no one wants or cares about the product.

It was pointed out to me that a) I shouldn't take such things personally (too late), and b) the general messages NASA sends out are weak--for example, can you explain why we're going back to the Moon? No. Can I? Well, maybe. But there's not central theme, no BIG MISSION, no philosophy or hot deadline or significant action pushing us. So if I'm not able to say with absolute certainty what the central message is behind a return to the Moon or a human journey to Mars, why should I expect the general public to care?

Motivating people in advertising is much like investigating motives for a crime. While particulars always vary from crime to crime and person to person, the motivations that cause individuals to act--for good or evil--can fall into several broad categories:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Love/sex
  • Ambition/greatness/fame/adulation/admiration of one's peers
  • Honor/pride
  • Transcendance/worship/awe
  • Greed/gain
  • Jealousy
  • Obedience/following orders
  • Survival/desperation/hunger
  • Curiosity/experimentation
  • Revenge
  • Self-improvement/overcoming weakness/proving oneself
  • Altruism

There are others, of course, but that covers most of the broad human motivations for anything...and at one time or another, all of them have probably been tried to get people to be interested in or supportive of space exploration. Some motivators work better than others and some last longer. No one means of argument works with every individual, and even if you find an argument that persuades a particular individual or individuals, that argument most likely will not last forever. People change, attitudes change, interest rates fluctuate, etc., etc.

This is why I tell my engineering friends that they've got it easy--the laws of physics don't change. Communication is akin to chaos theory.

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