Meet the social team behind Chris Hadfield

When the last space shuttle was decommissioned, the blogosphere declared that the space dream was dead. But two years later, with NASA’s 4 million Twitter followers and 2 million Facebook likes, clearly a lot of people disagree. NASA has 150 social medial personnel overseeing more than 480 accounts across nine platforms, and the agency was […]

Jeff Fraser June 26, 2013

When the last space shuttle was decommissioned, the blogosphere declared that the space dream was dead.

But two years later, with NASA’s 4 million Twitter followers and 2 million Facebook likes, clearly a lot of people disagree. NASA has 150 social medial personnel overseeing more than 480 accounts across nine platforms, and the agency was recently ranked #8 in a Nestivity study of the 25 most engaged brands on Twitter, ahead of CNN and the NBA.

NASA first caught on to social media in 2008, when Veronica McGregor, media relations officer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, decided to tweet and blog from the perspective of the Mars Phoenix lander. @MarsPhoenix gained more than 100,000 followers in a couple of weeks—enough to catch the attention of NASA’s leadership.

“What JPL did so brilliantly in those early days was take Mars Phoenix and make you care about the mission,” said Bob Jacobs, NASA’s head of communications.

Social media gave NASA a chance to engage its audience on a much deeper level than it could through press releases and other traditional PR methods. In the words of Jason Townsend, NASA’s deputy social media coordinator, social media offers people “a little bit of space in their own backyard.”

On June 1 Hadfield tweeted this picture of Sudbury, Ontario.

Jacobs said the key to NASA’s social media success is transparency and authenticity. “When you see some social media effort break through the clutter and get picked up by traditional media, it’s because there was something genuine about it,” he said.

To that end, NASA has loosened message control considerably, allowing the public to see inside the organization and the daily lives of employees. Most of the blogging and tweeting done on its social media profiles come from actual scientists and administrators, with little if any filtering by the PR department. Jacobs admitted there have been mistakes made, like news leaked too soon or incorrect info tweeted out, but giving fans a personal connection- with brand ambassadors is well worth a few extra headaches.

There’s no better example of this strategy at work than at the Canadian Space Agency, which surpassed even NASA’s success this spring with its viral online campaign around astronaut Chris Hadfield’s trip to the International Space Station. Anna Kapiniari, head of communications at CSA, spent two years developing a media plan for the five-month mission that would include Twitter, blogging, and live experiments.

Kapiniari said she knew the public wasn’t looking for stale science news, so she built CSA’s strategy around Hadfield’s personality, giving him opportunities to plan his own media stunts and be himself on camera and online.

“He’s a musician, so we knew we had to do something with music in space,” she said. That led to Hadfield’s “I.S.S. (Is Someone Singing)” live singalong, which attracted more than a million simultaneous viewers. His viral “Space Oddity” video, which hit 15 million views on YouTube, was something Hadfield cooked up on his own and CSA supported in a hands-off way. It was videos like these and his simulcast with William Shatner that made Hadfield’s mission so memorable—they exposed his genuine character, rather than scripting one for him.

Jacobs and Kapiniari acknowledge that public agencies like NASA and CSA have a leg-up when it comes to authenticity, because they have a mandate to be transparent, and because they aren’t perceived as “selling something.”  But it’s clear from their successes that even for private marketers, social media campaigning should aim to be as authentic as possible.

“There has to be a conversation. You have to talk to them, and listen to them, and react to what they’re saying,” Jacobs said. “If you don’t do that, you’re missing what I think is the primary value of social media.”

This article originally appeared in the July 8 issue of Marketing, on newsstands now.