Book review: Marketing the Moon – PR lessons from the Apollo era


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Marketing the Moon – The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program, by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek, is a book I’ve been waiting for – in the obvious sense, once the authors flagged its existence, but also in the sense of wanting for some time to know more about this aspect of the Apollo space programme from the 1960s and early 1970s.

The book doesn’t disappoint.

It works on three levels. For space buffs, it’s an untold story about how NASA’s PR programme created and delivered the story to the world.

For PR professionals, it provides new insight into one of the most complex, long-lived and effective PR programmes in the history of public relations (but still one that ultimately ran its course).

And it’s also a social insight into America in the late 1950s onwards, spanning the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon years.

Although a space buff myself it’s the second aspect – the PR aspect – that interests me most.

And although something of an historic snapshot of a bygone PR era of manual typewriters, call-collect phone lines, and printed (and stapled!) press kits, it stills presents lessons that remain current today.

Such as: never forget that a news story has a limited life.

That audiences tire quickly if the story isn’t refreshed.

That explaining facts is not the same as connecting with an audience with powerful stories that resonate.

That planning is required, but not everything can be predicted when it comes to events, personalities and egos, and equipment.

More importantly, the book reminds us that successful PR programmes require decisions to be made about investment in public relations strategies and resources, that longevity is important, and that there is always a choice to be made about whether or not a PR programme is required.

Finally, it reminds us that there must always be a return on a PR investment.

Meerman Scott and Jurek, both marketing professionals and both space buffs themselves, take the story from the pre-Sputnik 1950s through to the era just after the final Apollo mission, Apollo 17 of December 1972.

It remains astonishing – and heartening – that NASA and the US Government mandated that the public be kept informed at all times about what the programme entailed, and that the entire US space programme be conducted openly. There was a political element to this of course, a direct comparison with the rival Soviet approach of a closed programme and select and often deliberately confusing snippets of information controlled from the centre.

As such, NASA’s Apollo PR programme was itself a reflection of the Cold War that forged the programme in the first place. But it’s worth remembering that full public disclosure was enshrined in the act of Congress that established NASA in the late 1950s. In short, there was little if any wriggle room to be anything other than candid.

This in itself was to produce its own challenges, especially in managing the story and the mechanics of a structured programme ultimately answerable to Washington and Congress. The book delves into these challenges in some detail.

There are chapters on each aspect of the PR effort through the 1960s, including the disasters of the Apollo 1 pad fire, and Apollo 13. One example: the development of specialist TV equipment is an obvious story-line for such a book, but it’s brought to life by the descriptions of the effects on TV broadcasting, how the US TV networks wrestled with something as large as the first Moon landing, and the fluctuating levels of interest.

This narrative also goes into the detail of how the astronauts got to grips with what many initially regarded as a distraction from the more important task of test-flying the Apollo spacecraft, and then getting it to the Moon and back.

The public affairs personalities at NASA are discussed at length. They firmly stamped their styles and authority on the public affairs operations, acting in some cases almost as walk-on stars alongside the astronauts, in other instances fighting for the right to do a good job.

For modern PR practitioners there is much to be learned from understanding the simultaneous collaboration and rivalry that played out between different NASA centres, and between NASA and the aerospace contractors and equipment providers that also wanted their names in print and on screen.

We also forget today that while technology today has compressed the timescales of everything, back in the 1960s the public affairs and PR teams at NASA and the companies supplying NASA were deploying the social media of their day. These were the phone, the telex, in-person tours, and broadcast media. The line of continuity and technological evolution joins then and now. As PR practitioners, we have adapted on the way, as indeed NASA did from the early 1960s to the early 1970s.

Perhaps the most insightful chapter of all is the last one, which analyses the reasons for the decline in interest in Apollo almost from the day Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins splashed down in July 1969, sets the whole programme into its correct political and Cold War context, and summarizes the successes of the PR programme.

Here’s just one insight I hadn’t recognized before. President Kennedy’s famous call to arms to Congress in May 1961, that the US should commit itself to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth before the end of the decade, was the last of nine policy statements made over an hour to Congress and to the nation (and beyond). The space programme was part of a package of policies designed to win the global PR war against the communist alternative. As with all of Kennedy’s speeches, the space programme was a choice to be made between freedoms of choice, and no freedom at all. As such, it was always firmly ‘on message’ and the book explains how the media played their part.

Marketing the Moon is more than a superbly-produced book (which it is). It contains PR analysis in detail that surprised me in something looking this good. If only all PR textbooks were as attractive and as accessible.

If you are a space buff, buy this book. If you a PR professional, buy this book.

Marketing the Moon – The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program, by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek, published by the MIT press.

About alansmithoz

Head of Strategic Business Communications at Australian social analytics technology company Digivizer, with a background in corporate public relations and marketing. I do what I do because I believe communications can make a difference.
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3 Responses to Book review: Marketing the Moon – PR lessons from the Apollo era

  1. Hi Alan,

    Thank you so much for your review of the book! You are one of the first to write about it who is a marketing and PR pro and a space geek. So your review really resonated with me. Thank you.

    I especially enjoyed your comment: “never forget that a news story has a limited life. That audiences tire quickly if the story isn’t refreshed.” — you say that much more clearly than Rich and I did. Indeed in our media appearances for the book, this is the greatest lesson learned.

    David

    • alansmithoz says:

      Hi David.

      A great read. Thank you. It was fascinating looking back on how they did things then, but most interesting were the lessons and similarities that still apply today – hence my comment on managing and refreshing the story. What I think they did do well, which comes through in the book, is that they told the story in a way that connected with ways the public could care about. Today’s closest example is probably climate change – and I don’t think the IPCC, and those who are advocates for the changes we undoubtedly need to make, are doing as good a job as NASA did 40-50 years ago. The audience has to want to care. Knowing that it’s “true” (whatever the subject matter may be) isn’t enough. NASA got that, instinctively and explicitly.
      What was also cool about the book was that it made me get my NASA public affairs material out of the archive to re-read! When I was in my early teens (the early 1970s) I used to send in requests to “NASA, Washington”. Six months later, an envelope would arrive (back in the UK in those days) with photos and pamphlets! Which corporation would do that today, I wonder?

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