A Peek Inside the Pluto Public Relations Machine

Guest and New Horizons team members countdown to the spacecraft's closest approach to Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Guest and New Horizons team members countdown to the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

They knew it was going to be huge, but even the communications team – which had spent months planning for the event – was surprised by the magical atmosphere and worldwide excitement surrounding NASA’s New Horizons Pluto flyby.

It was a 15-year, 3 billion mile mission that was finally coming of age. The world was going to see Pluto – close up – for the first time. The communication needs were monumental and required good planning, a ton of teamwork and attention to detail. There was a lot of collaboration among communicators from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA, and other organizations, and the results were overwhelmingly positive.

So, how’d they do it? That’s the question that prompted me to reach out to Patrick Gibbons, Chief Communications Officer for APL. He graciously accepted my invitation to answer a few questions.

I know you’ll be amazed at the magnitude of the Pluto communications effort, and impressed by how it was brought to life. I certainly was.

I hope you enjoy this piece.

Pluto Infographic1.  How did you interface with NASA Communications? Who handled what?

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab developed the New Horizons mission proposal and also designed, built and operated the New Horizons spacecraft during its 9+ year mission to Pluto and beyond. For the Pluto flyby, APL served as the mission operations center, essentially hosting the mission for NASA. This meant hosting about 225 news media representative, 1,600 guests (including senior government officials), and developing the “program” (a conference-like series of panels and events).

NASA was the sponsor and decision maker, but we were in a position to recommend and help influence activities and plans surrounding the Pluto flyby “experience” for visitors. We coordinated with NASA Communications leadership on plans; NASA heard and understood our limitations as a primarily closed research facility, and we adjusted expectations to meet realities. APL, in collaboration with NASA, executed the communications plans and media center operations. Much was agreed upon with in-person discussions and handshakes.

2.  Was the Pluto fly-by the most exciting (and demanding) project you’ve been involved in?

It was one of the more demanding, dynamic and exciting events with which I’ve been involved. And in the end, it was one of the most successful and the most fun. I am very proud of the way our small (five-person) team developed the plans and logistics needed to successfully host the mission. Events surrounding the New Horizons Pluto flyby became a media and public “love fest.”

3.  How far ahead did you start developing your communications strategy for the New Horizons Pluto Flyby? Can you describe the planning process?

The New Horizons mission is one of many ongoing efforts at APL, so although we had all marked July 14, 2015, on our calendars as a big day, we did not get into detailed planning, (which included a lot of the TV/The Web/Social media/News outlines, until April. We knew the principal investigator (Alan Stern), the mission operations team, and science teams were well led and ready for the mission, so the real issue and challenge for us was to ensure we could deal with the many, many news media, guests and visitors who were planning to attend and cover the flyby.

Planning Concerns and Considerations

Scope: Initial estimates of media and guest attendance were all over the board. Some people said we should expect and plan for more than 400 news media organizations and 2,500 visitors during the week of July 12. However, those estimates were based largely on NASA “lander” missions at other NASA centers with active photography and video coming from the spacecraft. This was a flyby mission, so we could only speculate on what we would be dealing with when July arrived. Concerns about the huge scope of the event initially led to plans for staff members to telecommute the week of July 12 to ease the traffic congestion. In the end, more pragmatic plans led us to invite all APL staff members to attend the morning countdown (closest approach) event. We wanted this to be a “rocking” event.

Distance and Timing: Pluto is 3 billion miles from Earth; data and photos transmitted from the spacecraft require more than 4 hours traveling at the speed of light to reach Earth, and we were expecting only black and white images. By comparison, communications with spacecraft on Mars is several minutes. Also, data received from the spacecraft has to be processed and analyzed and cleared for release, which takes additional time. How would we account for the delay? How would we sequence release of information? How would we plan for late night activities?

Facility Concerns: NASA space centers like Kennedy in Florida, Johnson in Houston, and JPL in Pasadena are equipped to regularly host news media, science team, and guest operations in separate locations. APL was not equipped this way. We are primarily a closed facility due to the confidential nature of our government-sponsored national security research and development programs, so we had to improvise. We made an unconventional decision to host guest operations and news media operations in the same facility, a short distance from the facility in which science team members were analyzing data. This was a different set up than any other NASA science mission. Challenges included space concerns for attendees, privacy areas for internal meetings and contingency operations if needed, and security moving official and celebrities within areas.

News Focus: We had significant ongoing discussions with NASA about the newsworthy aspects of the mission – deciding what to highlight and how to sequence them.

  • The release of the best-ever photo of Pluto (how good would it be?)
  • The mission clock, which had been counting down to closest approach since launch (it would reach zero at 7:49 a.m. on July 14)
  • The signal mission operations would receive from the spacecraft at 9 p.m. that evening, indicating the spacecraft had survived the Pluto system and recorded scientific data
  • Human interest in the mission team members and the unknown risks of the Pluto system

Following numerous discussions, the agreed approach wove together these disparate news pegs or themes.

  • July 13 theme: “setting the stage”
    • Panels discussed the mission background and science to date
    • Mission partners gave overview presentations
    • News briefings were held featuring science and engineering team members
  • July 14 morning theme: “national celebration of science and technology”
    • Countdown and celebration of America’s arrival at Pluto
    • Only planet discovered by an American
    • Completes America-only survey of “classical” nine planets of solar system
  • July 14 evening theme: “suspense and congratulation”
    • Mission hazards, challenges, and risks
    • Congratulations for perseverance, dedication, and teamwork
  • July 15 theme: “exploring and reviewing the scientific findings”
    • Planetary scientists provide initial analyses
    • Many more close-up photos reveal interesting features and findings
New Horizons Flight Controllers celebrate after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 in the Mission Operations Center (MOC) of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

New Horizons Flight Controllers celebrate after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, in the Mission Operations Center (MOC) of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

There were five distinctly different communication efforts occurring in parallel to implement the plan. Each had its own leaders and players:

NASA TV: NASA TV is a primary vehicle used by NASA to convey its mission activities to the American and worldwide public. As mission operations center, APL became the home of NASA TV, a major effort that involved creating an auditorium-sized television set, dedicating the production team to shoot and produce newscasts, and developing all content regarding the event for NASA. APL had a broadcast booth and studio technologies available, but they had never been used so heavily for such a long period.

APL’s Mike Buckley, who served as New Horizons mission communications director throughout the mission, played a major role in this area. Working in partnership with NASA and mission teams, he led the news creation efforts for weeks leading up to the flyby; he also served as news anchor for NASA newscasts throughout the flyby activities. John O’Brien, second in command of APL’s Creative Visual Communications group, produced and directed NASA TV broadcasts. He led the team the produced all news content for NASA. NASA provided content input and approvals to ensure appropriate messaging.

Media Relations: APL-led logistics and planning efforts to accommodate the news media and the many NASA and mission partner public information staff members who joined us July 12-15. This involved the following:

  • Securing working space for an expected 400 news media representatives
  • Operating a full-service media center for five days, often for more than 12 hours at a time
  • Accrediting news media
  • Developing a briefing schedule for science team members at the media operations center
  • Creating multiple media interview and news briefing studios
  • Securing and maintaining high-quality Wi-Fi Internet access for 250+ media
  • Coordinating and communicating media events and schedule changes
  • Answering media questions and dealing with interview requests
  • Recruiting, informing, and managing public information officers from multiple NASA centers and SwRI as well as Johns Hopkins University main campus

Guest Operations: As mission operations center for the New Horizons Pluto flyby, APL had responsibility for hosting numerous mission partners, science team members, officials, and other visitors for three days of flyby activities. This was a significant effort that required detailed logistics and facilities planning. Between scientific announcements and NASA news briefings, a conference program or agenda was planned to add depth and color to the New Horizons mission and its relationship to previous planetary exploration missions. The principal investigator and science team members developed the program agenda, which involved a number of science team members and other space exploration luminaries.

Protocol/Government Relations: APL was also responsible for hosting a number of high-level officials who visited prior to and during the Pluto flyby activities, including U.S. senators and representatives, as well as senior administration officials. This dynamic and continuously evolving effort was coordinated between the APL and NASA government relations teams.

Social Media: NASA’s Social Media Branch developed its plans in conjunction with, but also independently of, other media operations. Their plans and releases were judged by most to be innovative, timely and cool, with the possible exception of the decision to release the first good image of Pluto on Instagram. That decision did not go over well with the numerous mainstream news media representatives who had traveled from across the nation and around the world to be present for the photo’s unveiling, but NASA ultimately decided to unveil the image via social media. The decision was seen as NASA taking a new step in its public engagement and outreach to different audiences that do not regularly follow America’s space program activities.

4.  Tell me how the communications team was assembled and duties were assigned.

Initially, the New Horizons communication director (APL’s Mike Buckley) along with NASA counterparts and mission team members led communication planning efforts. In March 2015, their efforts were reinforced with a project manager for guest operations. By April, expanding mission requirements began to involve APL’s entire five-person Communications and Public Affairs team. By June, we were all fully committed to New Horizons planning and execution.

NASA TV: In April, Mike Buckley and John O’Brien increasingly focused their efforts on NASA TV production, which involved scientific discoveries being made on an almost daily basis, as the spacecraft neared Pluto. This became a major effort starting in May and continued through the Pluto flyby.

New York Times - Pluto Cover Story

New York Times – Pluto Cover Story

Media Relations: In April and May, Geoff Brown and Gina Ellrich from the APL Office of Communications and Public Affairs began leading this effort, securing the needed facilities, resources, and developing detailed plans to host the news media. With the help of several other staff members, they built the media operations center concept and developed the needed materials and processes to successfully host the about 30 partner public information staffers as well as more than 250 news media representatives.

Guest Operations: This effort was a shared responsibility between APL’s Space Exploration Sector and the Office of Communication and Public Affairs, with overall responsibility assigned to the chief communications officer. Among the components:

  • Sending invitations and monitoring RSVPs for multiple organizations
  • Contracting, program planning and catering
  • Badging and signage to traffic flow and parking
  • Security
  • IT Planning

5.  How did you engage with university communications? Was the process easy, or were there challenges/competing priorities?

Johns Hopkins University communications fully supported the mission and our event plans. Communicators from most schools across the university volunteered to help with media relations and protocol operations, and several actively took part. It was a great relationship, as always. They actively promoted news and images on their highly-followed platforms and also highlighted JHU and APL leadership of the mission and science.

6.  You had 250 news organizations onsite for several days. How’d you keep all of those reporters happy?

Our media operations team developed a briefing schedule to continuously feed reporters interviewees, news, and information regarding the mission between NASA news briefings. Whenever science team members were not actively working on science, they were briefing the latest findings or were otherwise accessible in the media operations center. This was very successful in keeping the reporters active, and we were able to feature many of our APL experts in the mix. Interviewees would address a group of reporters, and then there was time for one-on-one follow-ups; this resulted in two big plusses. First, the reporters later told us that they had never had such good access to scientists, and it made their jobs easier and their reports better. Second, this setup gave our communications team more time to solve problems, plan and react to news, and maintain stability at the center – instead of racing to fill reporter requests.

7.  Was any special guidance or training provided to the scientists and engineers who were engaging with the media before, during and after the event?

NASA scheduled media training for the science team members far in advance of the flyby and continued to advise the team during the flyby events. Because the mission had been ongoing and newsworthy for several years, science team members were well rehearsed and comfortable with news media interactions. Mission partner (NASA, APL, and SwRI) public information officers also provided guidance to their technical staff members for specific interviews and briefings.

8.  You mentioned that more than 2,000 people participated throughout the day in events and activities at APL – can you elaborate?

We had about 1,600 visitors in addition to our staff and science team members during the peak of operations – the July 14 morning and evening events. About 1,000 APL staff members attended the morning “closest approach” event. It was the only event that was open to all APL staff members. Our aim was to have a celebration, and we certainly did. We had two large tents attached to the conference center to accommodate the overflow; we also rented a portable restroom facility (trailer).

9.  It seems your online communications vehicles were hugely popular. What was your strategy, and why did it work so well?

Pluto is a tremendously popular destination this year! In all seriousness, the New Horizons principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, is a masterful communicator and a very sharp scientist. His efforts were complemented by NASA and APL scientists and engineers, who were also well prepared to communicate mission activities clearly. Pluto became a worldwide trending topic; we aligned on the massive NASA media push and used that momentum to build our own viewership for products.

10.  Are there any lessons learned from the New Horizons project?  ….or things you wish you’d done differently?

If we had it to do again, we would start planning earlier for support staffing and logistics. We also would try to use the Web more to prepare the public for the flyby.

Although there were a number of things that did not go exactly as planned, few if any glitches were noticed by those who attended, and feedback from those who attended, including news media, was overwhelmingly positive. We got the big things right.

To what do we attribute such success? First, of course, is the amazing group of scientists and engineers from across the nation who ran a nearly flawless 15-year, 3 billion-mile mission, and who then interpreted the science in real time for an eagerly awaiting public. Second, and equally important, is leadership and support provided by APL’s director, chief of staff, and assistant directors. Finally, the planning, teamwork, determination, and attention to detail of the APL and NASA communications team and other staff members, who hosted Pluto flyby activities.



New Horizons Mission Webpage/Blog

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

Special thanks to my friend Patrick Gibbons, Chief Communications Officer of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, as well as Mike Buckley and Jeff Brown from the APL Communications Team, for contributing to this piece.

Editor’s Note: On 9/17 a minor edit was made to the final paragraph to correct an omission. On 7/26/16 an edit was made to remove the name of a member of the communications team.

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