How It Works

NASA: A good story well told

FCW magazine June 30 issue icon set.

When it comes to connecting with the public — be it on Facebook, Twitter or the silver screen — there might be no federal organization that can equal NASA’s success.

How does the agency generate so much goodwill on a relatively tight budget?

The answer lies in a bit of a paradox: following the rules but being flexible enough to roll with hashtags on Twitter and Michael Bay’s leaps of logic.

The power of saying ‘yes’ to Hollywood

“Don’t suck all the fun out of what you do,” said Bob Jacobs, deputy associate administrator for communications at NASA.

When it comes to movies, NASA might have the cachet of space, but it lacks the outreach budget of, say, the Pentagon. Therefore, Jacobs said NASA’s cinematic power lies not in aggressive outreach but in saying yes to almost everything it can.

Although the military is picky about the films it cooperates with, NASA has lent advice and support to a slew of movies that feature questionable — or flat-out wrong — science.

For instance, NASA helped with “Armageddon,” the over-the-top asteroid movie that starts with the premise that it’s easier to retrain oil drillers to be astronauts than it is to retrain astronauts to be drillers.

The wormhole adventure “Interstellar,” “The Avengers,” time-traveling “Men in Black 3” and cartoon “Planet 51” all received some support from NASA.

Even films that seem to feature hard, genuine science have their flaws, but refusing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, NASA lends a hand.

“The science of ‘Gravity’ was way off,” Jacobs said, adding that NASA connected actress Sandra Bullock with an astronaut and talked up the movie on social media during the 2014 Academy Awards event despite the film’s imperfect science.

There are, of course, limits.

NASA approves three to five scripts a year, Jacobs said, and rejects projects that don’t yet have funding lined up. Filmmakers can’t use a NASA endorsement to raise money.

But when it can, NASA gives scientific input, its logo and other support to films, be they documentaries or superhero flicks, because “there’s value in the inspiration and excitement they create,” Jacobs said.

Keeping the ‘social’ in ‘social media’

“I bet we have more [social media accounts] than anyone,” Jacobs said, citing NASA’s nearly 500 accounts on a dozen platforms.

But just having accounts isn’t enough; you need to use them effectively, which NASA does.

The agency is “still trying to figure out Snapchat,” he said, but NASA is a popular presence on Flickr (8,800 photos and counting, and that’s just the main account), Twitter (10.3 million followers, again just on the main account) and Reddit.

Separate social media accounts for specific space centers and program offices broaden NASA’s reach.

The agency’s accounts participate in popular trends — like the Academy Awards — but its online popularity might have been best demonstrated during the partial government shutdown in 2013, when Twitter users took it upon themselves to tweet space updates with the hashtag #ThingsNASAMightTweet.

NASA’s social media culture stands in stark contrast to that of some other government agencies.

The IRS, with the most in-demand website in government, has many social media accounts but only uses them to issue pre-approved information instead of interacting with taxpayers.

Jacobs said it’s important that feds recognize that “people expect to have a conversation [on social media]. It’s not just us transmitting to people.” Social media is meant for engagement, not just a box to check off or another place to dump press releases, he added.

Before diving into a social media platform, Jacobs said agencies should ask themselves, “What problem am I trying to solve?”

Following the law

The key to NASA’s social success lies in Section 203 of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which requires NASA to “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.”

That mandate forced NASA to be open in a unique way.

“We were going to show you our successes and our failures,” Jacobs said, citing the televised triumph of the Apollo moon landing and the tragedy of the space shuttle Challenger explosion.

“NASA is practicing pure public affairs,” said Richard Jurek, marketing executive and coauthor of “Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program.”

Jurek’s obsession with space was fueled by watching rocket launches on TV as a kid, and he said part of the tremendous value of NASA’s successful outreach is that it inspires young people to pursue careers as engineers, scientists and astronauts.

Jacobs was quick to say NASA’s outreach isn’t meant to lobby for cash or even recruit talent. The agency is just following the mission to widely disseminate information about space work.

It’s much like a romantic paradox — your ex only wants you back when you stop trying so hard to win her back — and it’s a valuable lesson for other agencies.

More from FCW

FCW Magazine (June 30, 2015)

To view the print version of this article, and the rest of FCW's recent "How it Works" package, please see our digital edition.

“Every government agency is doing something for an audience,” Jurek said, and he urged agencies to find those audiences and engage dynamically with the public instead of merely promoting pre-approved messages.

“Yes, there’s a coolness factor to space, but there’s also a hell of a lot of wonkiness,” he said, noting that during NASA’s initial marketing push it didn’t benefit from space’s cachet but rather had to convince a skeptical public.

Jacobs and Jurek said other agencies could find success by adopting open, engaging communication strategies and not being afraid to have a little fun.

“Audiences respond to stories and they respond to content,” Jurek said.

At NASA, “we have exciting, compelling stories to tell,” Jacobs said.

But social media success hasn’t been handed to NASA, he added. “A lot of it is elbow grease.”

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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