Lessons Learned From NASA Mishandling of Air Safety Survey

January 3, 2008 by  

NASA logoDamage control is an art form, best left to public relations professionals. While pharmaceuticals and other giants have learned from years of safety recalls (i.e. Tylenol, Vioxx, B&L MoistureLoc) what to do and not do in the face of media viciousness and consumer outrage, NASA fumbled terribly.

Here’s a brief summary to bring you up to speed if you haven’t heard already:

“NASA grudgingly released some results Monday from an $11.3 million federal air safety study it previously withheld from the public over concerns it would upset travelers and hurt airline profits. The data reflects hundreds of cases where pilots flew too close to other planes, plunged from altitude or landed at airports without clearance.”

“NASA published the findings — contained in 16,208 pages — but did not provide a roadmap to understand them, making it cumbersome for any thorough analysis by outsiders. Released on New Year’s Eve, the unprecedented research conducted over nearly four years relates to safety problems identified by some 25,000 commercial pilots and more than 4,000 private pilots interviewed by telephone.”

“NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the survey was poorly managed and told reporters the traveling public shouldn’t care about the data.”

“Rejecting an AP request under the Freedom of Information Act, NASA explained that it did not want to undermine public confidence in the airlines or hurt airline fortunes.”

People have a right to be deeply disturbed by this news. This is a PR nightmare for NASA, especially since they’ve become under harsher scrutiny in recent years. Let’s glean some learnings from how this has been mishandled.

  • Don’t tell people what they should care about. It only make you look like you’re trying to hide something from them.
  • Don’t withhold information because it will affect confidence, trust or profitability. Truth needs to be evaluated and acted upon. Otherwise you destroy your credibility and truthiness.
  • Don’t disrespect the survey participants by claiming some were not credible.
  • Don’t release anticipated information late on a holiday when people are distracted and news coverage is slow; and then claim it wasn’t intentional.
  • Don’t release information in ways that it is unusable. Critics claim that NASA has still withheld information to decipher cryptic data and did not provide the data in file formats that can be used. (Okay, I’ll conceed this is a touchy point. If you give the raw data, critics can skew the data anyway they’d like to interpret, which could fuel false claims.)
  • Don’t try to make excuses, such as the survey methodology was poor. Shifting blame will only enrage your employees and marketing partners that worked on it.
  • “It’s your space agency” is a quote from and makes a good point: If you fund something with $11.3 million tax payer dollars, be prepared to provide a full accounting of how it was spent.

I hope you find this useful. Please share your comments.

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