OP-ED: NASA hits the right note in response to latest crisis

Less than 48 hours after the Space Shuttle Columbia fell from the sky in flames, an extraordinary headline appeared in The New York Times: "Lessons From Uneven Challenger Investigation Create Attitude Change." As the world's news media bored in on NASA, demanding explanations for a disaster that threatened America's space program, the Times cited the agency for communicating candidly and clearly in a crisis.

Less than 48 hours after the Space Shuttle Columbia fell from the sky in flames, an extraordinary headline appeared in The New York Times: "Lessons From Uneven Challenger Investigation Create Attitude Change." As the world's news media bored in on NASA, demanding explanations for a disaster that threatened America's space program, the Times cited the agency for communicating candidly and clearly in a crisis.

The Times wasn't alone. In the coming days, major news organizations would repeatedly note that NASA seemed to be disclosing information about the Columbia tragedy almost as soon as it became available. The result: With its future on the line, NASA convinced journalists and the public that it deserved their continued trust. Even as NASA struggles to answer basic questions about what happened to Columbia, one thing is clear: The agency's public response to the shuttle tragedy has been a crisis-communications triumph. Indeed, what NASA said and did in the wake of the Columbia tragedy could serve as a handbook for managing crises in today's round-the-clock, live-as-it-happens media environment. As news of the shuttle crash has unfolded, I've been constantly reminded of what it feels like to face a global media onslaught. In October 2001, several of us at Burson-Marsteller were called to assist the US Postal Service when anthrax was discovered in the mail. Our work in the following months was both exhausting and exhilarating. Like NASA, our team found that no strategy can make hard questions go away. But by providing credible, timely information, and confronting tough issues, we were able to earn and retain the public's confidence. Our experiences and those of others, including NASA, have convinced me that a few basic principles are key to communicating effectively in any crisis. In crisis, the first instinct of those involved is usually to curl up in a ball and hide. Most people want to cope with loss in private. But today's 24-hour news cycle won't allow that. NASA officials demonstrated tremendous discipline by conducting an encyclopedic news conference on the day of the Columbia disaster. By going public right away, NASA prevented an information vacuum that would have been filled by self-styled experts and analysts, whose personal biases would have set the communications agenda. In every crisis, the public and reporters want something that never exists: instant explanations. The next best thing, however, is evidence that an organization is making a good-faith effort to find answers and make them public. NASA has accomplished this by briefing reporters daily on the status of its investigation, identifying the most significant issues at that moment. News organizations have responded with cool-headed, careful journalism that emphasizes how much remains unsettled and unknown. The two hardest phrases in the English language are "I was wrong" and "I don't know." Admitting failure or ignorance makes us feel inadequate or weak. Yet in the fast-changing atmosphere of a crisis, no one can know everything. So it's vital for an organization to explain what it doesn't understand and isn't sure about. Candor, especially when it's uncomfortable, builds the foundation for long-term credibility. Most of us literally aren't rocket scientists; we don't know if it's important that a stray piece of insulation hit Columbia's underbelly on takeoff. Someone must explain technical matters to us in plain English - a very hard job that takes tremendous preparation and skill. Providing this kind of clarity and context is paramount in any crisis. "Just the facts, ma'am" worked on Dragnet, but it won't play on CNN. The job of a journalist is to investigate. By constantly sharing the findings of its Columbia probe with reporters, NASA has made itself the most comprehensive and reliable source of information on this subject. After the shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, NASA appeared reluctant to conduct its own inquiry and was slow to release its findings; the agency quickly became the target of savage investigative reporting. This time, NASA made the right choice. The most important commodity in crisis communications is the benefit of the doubt. People decide quickly based on what they see and hear in the news whether they think an organization is responding to a crisis responsibly and honestly. That decision will irrevocably shape the organization's future. In this latest tragedy, NASA has earned the benefit of the doubt. That's the best any crisis PR plan could hope to achieve.
  • Kent Jenkins Jr. is a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. He is now a managing director in the media practice of Burson-Marsteller.

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