Your Crisis is Coming! How the Space Industry Can Prepare Now

Your Crisis is Coming! How the Space Industry Can Prepare Now

Article originally appeared on in June 2023.

The Space industry is not immune to the impact of bad publicity. As the Space industry grows and matures, bad news is going to increase as seen in the following headlines:

The number of incidents grows with the increased tempo of commercial operations, and we have yet to experience the first fatality of a Space Tourist. As the Commercial Space Industry is still largely funded by venture capital and public-Private partnerships, it is vulnerable to derailment by various nay-sayers and outside interests. One person’s successful launch is another person’s environmental calamity.

Unwelcome news can easily delay and or derail your commercial space business. Significant issues and crises dealt with in an amateurish nature can kill a business and derail promising careers. Without a proactive public relations effort, negative events or reviews will threaten your brand reputation. Most space companies will face a bad public relations situation at some point. How you respond can determine the extent of the damage.

Crisis to Opportunity

Managed properly and in a timely manner, crises can be turned in to opportunity to gain competitive business advantage, build trust and confidence in your organization, and move it forward in the process.

An excellent example of this is the Tylenol Tampering case that occurred in the Chicago area in 1982 where expeditious handling of the crisis along with timely corrective measure improved reputation and market share.

Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson received positive coverage for its handling of the crisis.
The Washington Post reported that “Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster” noting further that “this is no Three Mile Island accident in which the company’s response did more damage than the original incident”, and applauded the company for being honest with the public

At the time of the scare the company’s market share collapsed from 35 percent to 8 percent, however it rebounded in less than a year, a move credited to the company’s prompt and aggressive reaction.

In November, Johnson and Johnson reintroduced capsules in a new, triple-sealed package, coupled with heavy price promotions and within several years, Tylenol had regained the highest market share for the over-the-counter analgesic in the US.

As seen in the Johnson and Johnson example, negative information in the form of reviews, rumors, and media reporting initially hurt the company financially.
A crisis will hurt your brand reputation in the commercial space industry in two ways-financially and as information of value to your competitors and organization opponents. Typical financial impacts to commercial space organizations result in:

  • Reduced product and service evaluations resulting in fewer contracts.
  • Decreases in investor confidence reducing stock value, lessening investor support for expansion and R&D
  • Lowered employee morale and productivity
  • Additional regulatory oversight
  • Additional legal and administrative expense

People impacted during crises need timely information and reassurance presented in a story telling format. Public Relations is all about effective and efficient storytelling and most people are not born or trained storytellers. Public Relations professionals understand the life cycle of a crisis and are experts in understanding the stakeholders impacted by the crisis. Public Relations guided storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool during crisis situations. Public Relations storytelling helps reinforce the company’s brand voice, capture the attention of all stakeholders involved, and build brand reputation and trust.

The story of the commercial challenges and benefits of space are the responsibility of every organization and every individual that makes up the commercial space ecosystem. As observed by James Ollerenshaw , a marketing leader and business strategist experienced in A.I., robotics, and space:

  • “Space enterprises need to invest in education and communications to ensure public support for their endeavors.”
  • Extending that public support umbrella over your organization during a crisis is invaluable.
  • Space industry leaders and decision-makers need to take seven general steps to properly prepare for and deal with unwelcome news during the crisis life cycle:

Before it happens:

  • Invest in Public Relations expertise. Don’t try to do -it yourself. Public relations professionals are trained to manage the reputation of your company through owned (website), earned (third party reporting), and paid (advertising) communications. Typically, PR firms oversee messaging to the press. The main missions of a PR firm are brand awareness and reputation management.
  • Prepare for bad news in advance. PR crises planning is money well spent on something you hope will never happen, because it always does. Prepared plans and regularly scheduled crises response exercises are a must!
  • Have a communication response team and predesignated, trained spokespersons ready.

When it happens:

  • Take responsibility. The first lesson in this guidance on how to handle a PR crisis is to take responsibility for whatever happens. Don’t try to cover it up, manage it responsibly.
    • In October 2014, Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two crashed during a test flight, killing one pilot, and injuring another. The incident raised questions about the safety of commercial spaceflight and Virgin Galactic’s ability to deliver on its promise of space tourism. Virgin Galactic responded by suspending its test flights and launching an investigation into the crash. The company also issued public statements expressing its condolences to the families of the pilots and its commitment to safety.
      Source: “Virgin Galactic crash: Branson vows to carry on”-BBC News
  • Control the narrative. Tell your story, don’t allow others to tell it for you from their viewpoint, with their particular interests, and their agenda.
    • In May 2021, China’s Long March 5B rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and scattered debris over a large area. The incident raised concerns about the safety of un-controlled re-entries and the responsibility of spacefaring nations to mitigate the risks. China responded to the crises by downplaying the risks of the re-entry and asserting that it had acted responsibly in the situation. However, the incident sparked international criticism and renewed calls for regulations on space debris.
      Source: “China brushes off international concern over falling rocket debris”-The Guardian
  • Understand the situation. Situational awareness of the facts and the stakeholders involved is the key to any successful stakeholder engagement regarding the issue.
    • In September 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded during a routine pre-launch test. The explosion caused significant damage to the launch pad and raised concerns about the safety of SpaceX rockets. SpaceX quickly responded to the crisis by launching an investigation into the cause of the explosion and publicly addressing the issue. CEO Elon Musk held a press conference to explain the cause for the explosion and publicly address the issue. CEO Elon Musk held a press conference to explain the incident and provide updates on the investigation.
      Source: “SpaceX explosion: Elon Musk says this is the ‘most difficult and complex failure’ ever” – CNN Business
  • Respond, don’t react. Responding helps you maintain control of the narrative.
    • In April 1970, the Apollo 13 spacecraft experienced a catastrophic failure that put the lives of the three astronauts on board in danger. NASA’s response to the crisis was widely praised for its transparency and communication with the public. The agency kept the public informed throughout the crisis, and the safe return of the astronauts was seen as a triumph of NASA’s engineering and teamwork.
      Source: “The story of Apollo 13: How NASA’s ‘Successful Failure’ Almost Ended in
  • Apologize and take corrective action. If required accept responsibility and move expeditiously to correct the situation.
    • In 2018 and 2019, two Boing 737 MAX planes crashed, killing a total of 346 people. The crashes were linked to a software issue with the planes’ flight control systems. Boeing faced intense public scrutiny and criticism in the aftermath of the crashes. The company responded by grounding the 737 MAX fleet, launching a comprehensive review of the aircraft design and safety features, and working with regulators to address the issues.
      Source: “Boeing crashes: How the company’s response unfolded” – BBC News
  • Be polite on social media.
    • Examples of some past internet postings related to space crises include:
      • “ Deeply saddened by the loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle crew. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones during this difficult time. The courage and dedication of these astronauts will always be remembered.”
      • “Sending heartfelt condolences to the families of the Columbia Space Shuttle crew. Their commitment to exploration and discovery will forever inspire future generations. May they rest in peace.”
        “Our thoughts go out to the SpaceX team after the Falcon 9 explosion. We appreciate their determination and resilience in advancing space technology. Hoping for a swift recovery and future successes.”
      • “Acknowledging the Hubble Space Telescopes incredible contributions despite the initial setback with its mirror. Grateful for the repair mission that enabled it to capture awe inspiring images of the universe.”
      • “ A salute to the efforts of the Russian space program despite the challenges faced with the Phobos-Grunt mission. Space exploration demands bravery and innovation, and setbacks are part of the learning process.”

After it happens:

After a crisis, it is crucial to take specific Public Relations actions to manage the aftermath effectively. Meet with your Public Relations team and review and analyze the entire experience in what military strategy planners refer to as a “Hot Wash.” Here are some key Public Relations actions that should be taken :

  • Evaluate the impact. Assess the damage caused in terms of both reputation and public perception. Understand how the crisis affected stakeholders and the public.
  • Continue your communication Effort. Keep stakeholders informed about steps to address the crises and prevent recurrence. Provide updates on the progress resolving the issues to help rebuild trust
  • Express empathy and (continue to) take responsibility, reiterating your commitment to correct the situation and taking appropriate actions.
  • Tailor your messaging to different stakeholders. Customize messaging based on stakeholder needs and concerns, address specific interests and how they are being safe guarded going forward.
  • Utilize appropriate and /or preferred communications channels that are most effective with each stakeholder group.
  • Leverage media relations. Engage, engage, engage! Provide easy access to relevant information related to the crises, arrange interviews with knowledgeable spokesperson and experts, and proactively address any media inquiries.
  • Leverage social media platforms to share updates, address concerns and actively engage with your audience.
  • Rebuild trust and credibility by implementing and communicating initiatives and actions that demonstrate your commitment to providing and similar crises in the future. This could include improving processes, implementing additional safety measures, or supporting relevant causes.
  • Continuously monitor and manage your online reputation through online conversations, news articles, and social media platforms to identify and lingering negative sentiment or misinformation. Respond promptly to inaccuracies.
  • Learn from the crisis. Conduct a thorough post-crises evaluation to identify lessons learned.
    • Review all of the associated media coverage
    • What was missing in your planning effort?
    • What could you have done better?
    • What actions can be taken after the event to continue to help turn it into a positive?

In summary, successfully dealing with an emerging issue or an immediate crisis requires a careful and strategic approach. Here are the key crises response actions to consider:

  1. Act promptly and transparently
  2. Gather information and assess the situation.
  3. Develop a crisis communication plan-BEFORE the crises.
  4. Apologize and take responsibility.
  5. Provide regular updates.
  6. Actively monitor and engage in social media.
  7. Train and support spokespersons.
  8. Collaborate with key stakeholders.
  9. Learn from the experience.
  10. Rebuild trust and reputation.

Remember, every crisis is unique, and it is essential to adapt your approach based on the specific circumstances. Seeking professional advice from experienced public relations practitioners will help you manage a crisis effectively and efficiently.

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