Apollo 11: Pioneering Modern PR

A half century ago, an estimated 650 million people watched the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was, at the time, the largest TV audience ever. NASA’s live broadcast held the world’s attention as the lunar lander descended to the surface, climaxing in Neil Armstrong’s now immortal comment, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The moon landing changed PR

The event that changed humanity also changed public relations. It gives us lessons we apply to every client.

Imagine, though, if NASA had decided, instead of live TV, to wait until the moon landing was a success, and then issue a press release. The news may have read something like this:

NASA announced this morning that astronauts are on their way back to earth after reaching the surface of the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon yesterday, with Armstrong becoming the first human to set foot on the surface. According to the space agency, Armstrong commented, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”


Going to the moon took courage; so did NASA’s PR

One of the greatest achievements of the 20th century would have been another news story competing against the ongoing coverage of social unrest, the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Yet, NASA had good reason to be cautious. The majority of Americans, and many scientists, did not support a manned mission to the moon. Political support was waning. Failure on live TV would have been disastrous for the agency, and a global embarrassment for the US during the Cold War race to the moon. Waiting until after the moon landing would have been the safer public relations approach.

Instead, NASA created what may well be the greatest public relations campaign in the history of mass media. It becames the world’s first viral event, built upon tactics NASA pioneered throughout the first decade of its manned space program.   

  • Announce bold goals; the risk is worth the reward. “And they lived happily ever after” is a statement, not a story.
  • Humanize the story by featuring people in the narrative. From the very beginning, NASA promoted its astronauts.
  • Identify spokespersons from within the program. NASA chose Neil Armstrong to be first on the moon first in part because they felt he would be the better spokesperson.
    • Give the media access. From astronaut interviews through facility tours to live feeds from space, NASA provided reporters the raw elements to tell newsworthy stories.
  • Bring people along for the journey; engagement and transparency build trust. (Multiple milestones also provide multiple PR opportunities.)

We identify the right tactics to tell your story

Not all of these tactics are right for every PR opportunity. Announcing a new product in advance could tip off the competition. The people involved in a program may not be good spokespersons. Behind the scenes may not be a good visual.

But one thing is certain: an effective campaign is far more than a press release. We work to identity the right tactics, minimizing risk and maximizing opportunity, to build an ongoing campaign that drives engagement and long-lasting loyalty.

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