Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Coordinated messaging

I'm not sure where it started for me, but I am totally geeked out about the world's space programs. Maybe it was that Star Trek was one of my favorite shows growing up. Maybe it's because I was born a few weeks before Apollo 8's historic mission. It could be because where I live in Florida, I can easily see launches taking place across the state at the Kennedy Space Center.

Launches get my heart racing
Whatever the reason may be, I am enthralled by the power of the rockets, the voyages of discovery and the raw courage of the astronauts and cosmonauts who strap themselves to devices that harness barely controlled explosions to propel them to great heights. 

I have also learned a lot about being a public information officer from NASA's storied history. One of the classes that I instruct is G291 - Joint Information Systems. It's a one-day class that teaches public information officers how to work together closely in large, complex events. From the Super Bowl to a hurricane's impact to something like the Republican National Convention held in Tampa in 2012, this coordinated delivery of information keeps everyone 'in their lane,' prevents conflicting information and helps ensure the speedy release of important details to residents. 

A Joint Information Center in action
The greatest challenge in that class? Helping students wrap their arms around the concept. Why not just let everyone talk to the media as they need to and let the chips fall where they may? 

NASA had to address this very problem during manned space flight. With the one (Mercury), two (Gemini), three (Apollo) or more (Space Shuttle) astronauts in orbit, tending to any one of a thousand tasks, how would they know who to listen to, especially if conflicting orders were given? To help eliminate this problem, the Manned Space Flight Center in Houston, Texas, adopted strict protocols for communicating with the crews.

Tranquility Base with Buzz Aldrin in the foreground
The best way to show this process in action is to visit the First Men on the Moon. This is what the Internet was made for. Basically,the site creators took the communications loops from Houston, between Houston, the Columbia and the Eagle and a slew of other flight data and synced them up to show you exactly what was happening when Apollo 11 made its historic touchdown on the Sea of Tranquility.

Gene Kranz as Flight Director - or Lead PIO
Listen carefully to the audio and you will start to get an idea of how a Joint Information Center works. The legendary Gene Kranz, as flight director, serves in the role of lead PIO. He gets the information from the other flight controllers - flight surgeon, retrofire officer, flight dynamics officer, guidance officer ... the works ... and helps coordinate the activity in the room. Think of those other positions as the PIOs for the local law enforcement offices, the local fire departments, the local health department ... and you will start to get the picture. Each has an important piece of information, and it's up to Gene Kranz to sift through the details and determine what is critical to communicate to ensure the success of the mission.

Charlie Duke as CAPCOM - or the media spokesperson 
Once the data is collected, Gene Kranz turns to the only person authorized to speak with the astronauts - Charlie Duke as the CAPCOM. Not only is Charlie giving cleared data to the crew, he's also an astronaut who later flew on Apollo 16. As a fellow astronaut, he is very familiar with the operations in the Lunar Module and Command Module, giving him a level of comfort that the engineers who see only a small part of the operations don't have. 

Another important duty of Charlie Duke's was to listen to what the crew was saying, and to relay it back to the control center. Again, as someone focused solely on the needs of the astronauts, he was in a unique position to ensure they would get their questions answered quickly. Think of him as the dedicated media liaison and spokesperson. 

Now, if you imagine astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins as members of the media, seeking clear communications, you start to see how the parallel can be made. 

While it may seem a little unorthodox as a teaching tool, I can't even begin to tell you how many students have their a-ha moment as they watch the event unfold.

Plus, wow, it's just too cool!

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

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