In the last few years, space companies have increased their presence on social media. Being on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere can help companies get their message out without depending on conventional media and make themselves look cool to prospective employees.
Few have been as aggressive recently on social media as United Launch Alliance. The company’s chief executive, Tory Bruno, tweets play-by-play commentaries of launches, participates in an “Ask Me Anything” sessions on Reddit, answering a wide range of questions about the company and its launch plans. He even returned to Reddit recently, offering unsolicited feedback on a student project about reusable launch vehicles. It’s certainly helped make ULA seem like a hipper company in the last couple of years.
Social media, however, can be a two-edged sword, as ULA recently discovered. A talk by Brett Tobey, ULA’s vice president of engineering, at the University of Colorado March 15 spread across the Internet with the help of Reddit. Tobey’s unguarded comments cost him his job within a day, and soon led to a new Pentagon investigation of ULA’s launch contracts.
Much of the talk, titled “ULA’s Competitive Transformation,” isn’t particularly controversial. He acknowledged that ULA had to change to respond to the market, particularly the emergence of SpaceX. Even his criticism of SpaceX, like calling its efforts to reuse the Falcon 9 first stage “dumb,” can be chalked up to competitive tensions between the companies (ULA, by contrast, has proposed recovering only the first stage engines of its new Vulcan vehicle).
Tobey, though, likely ran into trouble largely for two comments. One was where he likened the competition between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne to provide a new rocket engine to having “two possible brides,” with Jeff Bezos-funded Blue Origin as the “super-rich girl” and Aerojet “this poor girl over here.” A politically incorrect statement like that attracted plenty of attention and criticism, and no doubt didn’t help ULA’s relationship with Aerojet, one of its major suppliers. To Aerojet’s credit, company president Eileen Drake — a retired Army officer — publicly shrugged it off. “As my Army bros say there’s girls you date then those you marry b/c there’s a solid future together,” she said via Twitter.
More importantly, though, Tobey’s talk clashed with ULA’s public explanation for why it did not submit a bid for a GPS 3 launch contract last year. “The government was not happy with us not bidding that contract because they felt they bent over backwards to lean the field in our advantage,” he said. “We even said we no-bid, because we saw it as a cost shootout between us and SpaceX.” While ULA has acknowledged that the competition’s Lowest Cost Technically Acceptable structure put it at a disadvantage, its claim that it couldn’t bid because of uncertainties about the number of RD-180 engines available and limitations of its accounting system garnered the most attention.
In another era, perhaps, Tobey’s comment s likely wouldn’t have spread far beyond the audience in the room on the Boulder campus. Perhaps they might have percolated through the industry grapevine by word of mouth, inevitably distorted by the retelling, like in a game of telephone. If his comments got back to ULA, it would have been easy for them to deny: a misunderstanding, or a misinterpretation, they could have said.
Instead, at least one attendee recorded Tobey’s talk and uploaded the audio to YouTube, where it was discussed and further distributed on Facebook and Reddit, capturing the attention of SpaceNews.com, Reuters and the broader public. With the recording available for anyone to hear, ULA could not deny Tobey’s words, only disavow them. By late March 16, Tobey resigned.
While ULA might have acted quickly to distance itself from Tobey’s comments, the company will have to deal with their reverberations for weeks to come. Sen. John McCain, a target of criticism in Tobey’s talk, brought up his comments in a March 17 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee a day after they went public, asking Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to investigate them. A few days later, the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General announced it was investigating ULA’s launch contracts based on Tobey’s comments.
Some have argued that Tobey’s remarks were not meant to be on the record, but instead an intimate discussion with students and faculty. Clearly the industry veteran didn’t expect his words to become public, but given that the talk was advertised on campus in advance for anyone to attend, without any disclaimer about it being off the record, any expectation of privacy seems unwarranted.
So what’s the lesson, the teachable moment, from this experience? It’s a reminder that, in an era where almost everyone has a smartphone that provides global reach thanks to social networks, what might have once been considered private can now easily become public. While candor is always welcome, not knowing your audience can have consequences.
And that’s another lesson from this event. Companies might be keen to use social media as another public relations tool, but it’s much bigger than that, for better and for worse.