Life on Mars?

NB Team

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The Martian is an excellent thriller of a book, soon to be film, about a mission to Mars gone wrong that leaves astronaut Mark Watney stranded. Btw, we’re not giving anything away there, it all happens pretty early on in the story.

In parts, the book tells you what’s happening behind the scenes at Mission Control, including how the comms are managed.

Space, and crisis comms – two of our favourite things! It got us thinking how we’d handle it.

Before anyone ever set foot in the spacecraft, we’d have insisted on having a crisis comms plan in place. It’s important to have as a back-up at the best of times, but with something as risky as space travel it’s a must. Of course, you hope you never have to use it…

What goes into the plan? It should include organisational structure – which people and departments need to be involved in a crisis situation to ensure information is being shared quickly and accurately, so that everyone is giving out the same message. It’s also important because in a crisis, people don’t have the time or mental capacity to waste on things that aren’t their core job. It’s not difficult for press to find the email address of someone else in the organisation, and send off questions fishing for an answer. If people know to forward those on to the press office, it makes life a lot easier.

In this case, you’d want medical and flight control as a priority to establish what happened, and what the astronaut’s current status is. The worst thing you can do is speculate about Watney’s condition and have to retract it later – the public and the press won’t be able to trust your later comments.

While the pressure of the situation may feel like it demands an immediate response, you should always take time to consider options. If you rush, you’ll make mistakes. In this case, NASA holds all of the information and it’s next to impossible for anyone else to know what’s happening via other channels. NASA holds all of the information so there’s no pressure to compete, instead the response should still be swift but there’s nothing wrong with delaying a statement if the extra time will help.

The plan should also include big Qs about what can go wrong, with suggested responses. Who is your audience, and who do you need to win over? The comms team will have worked with different departments beforehand to develop this, so that anyone from the social team through to a medical officer can know the tone and content they should be responding with. If they should be responding at all…

The organisational structure will include the sign-off process. In a crisis it’s all too easy to lose track of who can and should be approving external comms. There would also be background about each of the astronauts and their role in the mission. In this case you’d also need to consider whether Watney had family who needed to be alerted before any detail was shared with the public.

The plan would also consider what kind of information needs to be shared, and what should still be kept quiet. Although you wouldn’t say it at the time, the responses would all need to consider the future as well – the statements issued today can’t rule out future missions etc.

As events unfold it’s also important to think about how and when detail is communicated to the public. For example, bad news should rarely, if ever, be broken over Twitter – 140 characters just isn’t enough to convey emotion – could you imagine announcing Watney’s death like that?!

If there’s a press conference, who are you inviting, which spokesperson will deliver the news (if it’s seriously bad news, it’s likely to be someone very senior, although in this case it could be someone in Mission Control who had a relationship with Watney) and will they be available to take questions after? Will you give any media background briefings, or have briefing packs available?

It can be difficult to change how you’re communicating updates to the public and press, so if you start with press conferences that include Q&As and then stop doing the Q&A element, people will think there’s something wrong and that will become part of the story.

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider. If you happen to be planning any space missions and need a PR company, just give us a call.