PROFILE: Mirelson plots new media relations course for NASA

After two decades of doing public affairs for the US Army, Robert Mirelson knows how vital it is to be open and accessible. As Kimberly Krautter reports, he has taken those qualities to NASA.

After two decades of doing public affairs for the US Army, Robert Mirelson knows how vital it is to be open and accessible. As Kimberly Krautter reports, he has taken those qualities to NASA.

His blue worsted wool suit is military crisp and telegraphs efficiency. His manner is quiet and circumspect. But his eyes evince the responsibilities he has shouldered. Retired US Army Colonel Robert N. "Doc" Mirelson spent the past three decades managing the public face of military affairs across four continents, under five Presidential administrations and through countless shifts in social and political mores. His only foray into the private sector (2000-2002) was with government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. There he served the interests of the IRS, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and the Department of Defense (DoD). Seven months ago, he joined NASA's communications staff as chief of news and imagery. While NASA is not defined as a military organization, its roots lie in the early supersonic experiments by the US Army Air Corps. Mirelson seems to prove that you can take the man out of the Army, but you can't take the Army out of the man. He is expert at deflecting personal questions and keeping reporters on point - his point - though with a courteous, unaffected manner. He offers benign disinterest on topics that stray beyond the borders he has drawn for any interaction. In a Chinese eatery he reveals little except that he has a yen for hot and sour soup and the derivation of his nickname. Long before the Army called him up, he was drafted in grade school by middle-schoolers looking for a few good "dwarfs" for a production of Snow White. As the only chubby boy wearing glasses, he was typecast as Doc. "It could have been worse," demurs Mirelson. "I could have been Dopey." While the stage name stuck, he was not to be dwarfed by consequences of history. Mirelson, found the right stuff to manage through some trying times. He's had to answer the question, "Why did my son have to die?" more times than any person should. The first time was in 1975, when he was a young first lieutenant in Germany. It was his first public affairs job, and he had respond to questions from a mother of a soldier killed in a training accident. "It's never easy," says Mirelson. "There is no acceptable answer except to be sympathetic, empathetic, and patient." Another time was after Battle of Mogadishu, immortalized in the movie Black Hawk Down. Eighteen soldiers died. The US public was outraged. The government was humiliated. As the US European Command public affairs officer, Mirelson had to field all media inquiries about the surviving helicopter pilot, chief warrant officer Michael Durrant, and shielding the wounded soldier and his wife from media flak. He also had to juggle calls from the DoD and the White House press office. He was at the center of an information triage for the ground zero of that time. Mirelson expresses contempt over the media's historical recollection of Mogadishu. "In another time, under another administration, this would have been one of the greatest victories," he says. "This is Custer winning. We inflicted over 5,000 casualties on the enemy and took 18 losses - an amazing ratio from a military perspective." Yet, Mirelson does not see the media as the enemy, more as an ally requiring vigilant diplomacy to maintain the right balance of power. This sensibility has been an asset to what is being widely acclaimed as the "new NASA." "Until recently, there were very few government agencies that did a worse job than NASA, and few that were less friendly, especially out of headquarters," says Seth Borenstein, science writer for Knight Ridder-DC. "It had an awful reputation for dealing with reporters." Journalists covering NASA as a daily beat say its culture was antagonistic under former administrator Daniel S. Goldin, who was appointed by the first President Bush and served throughout the Clinton years. Mirelson again found himself responsible for communicating through a national tragedy this winter when the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed. His management of information out of headquarters helped NASA dramatically reverse its reputation with the same media critics. And while reporters say they don't yet know Mirelson personally because of his brief tenure, they say he is responsive to their information requests and facilitating access to new chief administrator Sean O'Keefe. "He's helped jar NASA out of its complacency," says Frank Sietzen Jr., who writes a column for SpaceRef.com. "You ask them questions about a story now, and they'll throw you more resources than you can handle." Like a good soldier, Mirelson credits O'Keefe with the paradigm shift, and points to the routine breakfast meetings with the press that the new administrator instituted shortly after his appointment. Indeed, journalists vaunt O'Keefe's no-holds-barred openness at these meetings as "refreshing." Sietzen recounts a time immediately after the Columbia accident when he asked if the crew would not survive in the event of any failure in the shuttle landing gear. O'Keefe's simple, unabashed answer was, "Yes." Asked if he finds such directness a problem, Mirelson says, "I'd rather have someone self confident than have someone that's going to freeze up and say, 'No comment.'" Mirelson's news organization is currently earning better than satisfactory marks, and while that is a 100% improvement over the past, it remains to be seen if this new openness will be sustained should the Columbia accident investigation uncover something egregious. As Warren Leary, Washington science correspondent for The New York Times, says, "Will this become the institution at NASA public affairs, or at some point will the rabbit jump back down its hole?" ----- Robert Mirelson 2002-present Chief of news and imaging, public affairs office, NASA 2000-2002 Senior public affairs associate, Booz Allen Hamilton 1998-2000 Corporate communications director, US Army Corps of Engineers 1996-1998 Commander/publisher, European Stars & Stripes newspaper 1975-1996 Numerous public affairs roles for the US Army 1985-1988 Professor of Military Science at Duquesne University

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