Article by Cara Walker and Olivia Grider | Photos by Brandon Bennett
When NASA celebrated 15 years of human life on the International Space Station in the fall of 2015, the social media campaign it transmitted to the world was shaped by public-relations students at The University of Alabama.
Students enrolled in APR 572 Persuasion took on the tasks of analyzing NASA’s current social-media messages and platforms and creating new content aimed at increasing audience engagement.
The class found NASA was using beautiful images of space and the space station, but most of them didn’t show people, says Ann Hataway, an advertising and public relations graduate student and leader of one of two student groups. Her group created posts with images and videos featuring people in order to highlight the human dimension of the 15-year celebration. “My team really wanted to focus on humanizing NASA by showing people in photos and letting social media followers see and meet those working at NASA,” she says. “We also wanted to emphasize how many people and countries had visited space.”
Funding for International Space Station (ISS) social media is limited, with one person managing all the ISS’s social-media accounts. Reinventing and imagining new content isn’t always possible or a top priority given time constraints, says Dr. Chris Vargo, assistant professor of public relations and APR 572 instructor, and this gave students an opportunity to assist in creative ways.
Vargo also says the experience introduced the Fall 2015 class to public relations’ government side – a large and growing field. “The students got to work with NASA, which has an immense social-media presence,” he says. “They had to learn how to take complex ideas and distill them down to communicate key points for NASA’s audience to process. Some of their content was seen on the largest social-media accounts in the world.”
Evan Ogden, a communication studies graduate student, says his group’s project involved filtering through a lot of social media to find ways NASA could improve its messages. “For example, we saw that NASA had really engaging Instagram pictures, but their captions were too long,” he says. “The team then presented examples of posts with similar pictures and shorter campaigns.”
Ogden says the experience connected theoretical discussions to real-world results. “What I learned was really how the concepts we learned in class – social currency and the types of things that get people engaged online – how those things actually apply to organizations and how those can be used effectively,” he says.
Twelve students presented an evaluation of NASA’s social-media efforts and an array of campaign and content suggestions to Dan Huot, director of public affairs for NASA’s International Space Station. Huot implemented many of their ideas, which were viewed by NASA’s 6.8 million Instagram followers and 13.4 million Twitter followers.
“It was great to listen to the students’ ideas and gain an outside, younger perspective on what they look for in social-media content these days,” says Huot, whose role involves identifying themes and topics for NASA to focus on in its public-relations messages. “They came up with a number of suggestions that were fascinating.”
The agency featured one suggestion, the “What were you doing then?” idea, on the International Space Station’s Twitter account on Nov. 2, 2015. (The International Space Station has been continuously occupied since Nov. 2, 2000.) Hataway says these posts were aimed at sparking engagement among followers. They also showcased the transformation of NASA’s technology.
Callie Smith, an advertising and public relations graduate student, says Huot spent a whole day with the class, providing advice on their projects. “He would say, ‘think about this’ or ‘this will work, this won’t.’ He was very respectful, but also gave very constructive feedback.”
“We really had the freedom to work and learn at the same time,” she says. “It was all applicable to the workplace that we will experience. I eventually would like to do this type of thing – man social media for a company and present cool pieces of information for our audiences.”
Vargo says the students’ contributions went far beyond a few tweets and Instagram posts. “Dan immediately implemented a handful of things into practice [including increased human presence and interactive posts] that the students felt could improve day-to-day operations, and the students really felt like they made a difference,” Vargo says.
To learn more about APR 572 Persuasion, visit apr.ua.edu/our-department/apr-masters-program or contact Dr. Chris Vargo at firstname.lastname@example.org.