NASA avoids past PR errors in Columbia response

HOUSTON: It had been 17 years since NASA communicators faced a crisis of this magnitude, but it took them less than 15 minutes to grab the media reigns once the Columbia was lost.

HOUSTON: It had been 17 years since NASA communicators faced a crisis of this magnitude, but it took them less than 15 minutes to grab the media reigns once the Columbia was lost.

It was, according to insiders and observers alike, a profound improvement over the sluggish and often frustrating management of the response to the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. At 9:16am on February 1, the day the Columbia broke up during reentry, NASA public affairs officers in Houston, Washington, DC, and Florida enforced a contingency plan they had rehearsed as recently as October. "We had the press center open within 14 minutes," said NASA news chief Robert Mirelson. Several actions were put into play at once. A fill-in-the-blanks media alert was posted on the main NASA website, and the first press release was issued 45 minutes later. A media triage was set up, with the public affairs team at Kennedy Space Center taking the lead. "In the immediate aftermath, the media wants the people in charge," said Mirelson. "The NASA chief was there with the (astronauts') families." He explained that national broadcast and electronic media were initially prioritized, "to get the word out as widely, and as fast as possible." NASA also leveraged its TV network to facilitate press conferences. Satellite transponder information was rereleased so the media could uplink to the broadcasts, the first of which was only four hours after the tragedy. Lisa Malone, associate director of external affairs at Kennedy Space Center, moderated that first press conference. She said that despite the speed in which everything was moving, the team largely stuck to the crisis plan. "No plan can choreograph everything," said Malone. "But when you have people identified with specific roles and responsibilities, that really makes things easier." Mirelson's role, for one, did not exist during the 1986 Challenger explosion. Another factor that didn't exist then is the Department of Homeland Security. In its first major crisis test, the new group facilitated NASA's interagency support. "We had one group to go to for help with FEMA, the Coast Guard, Department of Defense, local authorities, and others," said Mirelson. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) played its own role in the preconceived master plan. With potentially hazardous pieces of the shuttle plummeting across several states, the EPA took the lead in communicating the importance of staying away from them, both for health and theft reasons. "As soon as FEMA was designated the lead agency, you have a whole network set up with the other agencies to respond," said EPA director of public affairs Joe Martyak. "We are always prepared to work closely with FEMA and NASA in cases like this." With experts on the scene where possible, and airborne equipment seeking out hazardous material, the EPA had communicators on location at the NASA press center, issuing releases and warnings to local and national media. "We're using the various media formats, whether it's print, broadcast, radio, or whatever, to put that message out," he added. According to those who had covered the Challenger explosion, as well as other experts, it was a dramatic improvement in response and management. "NASA has a terrible reputation for being very defensive and tight with information," offered Jim McKenna, a veteran NASA reporter and current managing editor of Aviation Maintenance magazine. "But I'm very impressed, I must say. "I conclude that this fellow (shuttle program administrator) Ron Dittemore is one of those who decided that NASA will have a better relationship with the media and public by at least giving the appearance of being very forthcoming and responsive," he added. David Fuscus, president of aviation PR agency Xenophon Strategies, saw a direct link between the inadequacy of communications following the Challenger disaster and the improvements seen last week. "There was a real hubris factor with Challenger. They're attitude was, 'We're the experts, we know what we're doing, and we'll come back to talk to you when we have something," he said. "They've obviously gone in and made conscious decisions about the frequency and quality of their communications. "They're running a textbook crisis communications plan now," he concluded. ----- Rapid reaction 9am All communications lost with Space Shuttle Columbia; NASA initiates a technical contingency plan 9:16am Communications contingency declared (9:16am was scheduled landing time at Kennedy Space Center); NASA public affairs teams in Houston, Cape Canaveral, FL, and DC coordinate; additional staff called in; Homeland Security Office is contacted 9:30am Crisis media center is opened; media relations triage is set up; media alert posted; press conferences announced 10am First press release distributed via multiple wire services; Debris sales on eBay pulled; Commercial satellite companies contacted 1pm Press conference at Kennedy Space Center, led by NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, with a general briefing, including media Q&A 3pm Press conference at Johnson Space Center, led by Space Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore with chief flight director Milt Heflin, including media Q&A with two-way satellite communications capability with media at other NASA centers 4pm NASA online pressroom updated with transcripts of official statements, President Bush's speech, and other releases.

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