Advancing commercial space through communications

Companies have been working for decades to make the vision of space as the “final frontier” a reality, and the last several years in particular have seen an increase in initiatives aimed at commercial space exploration.

This has been driven by a multitude of factors, from reduced government spending on space exploration to accelerating advances in technology. The recent cultural revival of science fiction-fantasy entertainment, including blockbuster hits like The Martian, Gravity, Interstellar and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, also have captured imaginations and ensured that interest in the possibilities of space remains high among the general public, further boosting the momentum of commercial space initiatives.

Combine all of this with a spate of recent breakthroughs by startup companies like SpaceX completing its successful landing of the Falcon 9 reusable launch vehicle – on track to be reused for a second flight next year – and the outstanding in-flight abort test by Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle – bringing humans one step closer to commercial spaceflight – and it’s no surprise that interest in and possibilities for space exploration continue to rise.

Commercial aerospace has entered a critical and exciting phase of development, and we are closer than ever to space tourism and commercial space exploration, including space settlement and mining. This is an exciting time for the industry.

Earlier this year, I was invited to moderate a panel on advancing commercial aerospace through marketing and communications at the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual NewSpace conference. Held in Seattle, a growing hub for commercial space, I was able to sit down with professionals from across the industry to discuss the rise of commercial space exploration and communication and marketing best practices. When combined with what we learned from the recent U.S. presidential election, a few key themes emerged that are particularly relevant to this industry. These include:

  • Decreasing Trust in Institutions: This year’s historical election revealed increasing populism trends in the U.S. and abroad, largely driven by high income inequality and a significant trust gap between the informed public and mass population. While this presents an opportunity for businesses that keep pace with the changing times, it also remains true that government has been the least trusted institution for five years running now, according to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer data.
  • The Power of Social Media: In today’s evolved media landscape, social media offers a great means for businesses to communicate directly with audiences and shape narratives online in real time. The power of social media was underscored by the success of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign, even against an opponent who spent far more on traditional advertising.
  • Keep it Simple: We shape and tell stories by understanding our audiences, the industry landscape and, in many cases, complex technical issues. In an increasingly complicated media ecosystem that includes traditional media outlets, search platforms like Google, social media channels like Twitter and limitless publishers of information and data, effectively engaging your target audience now requires more simplicity and clarity than ever – and less industry jargon.
  • Transparency is Key: Some aerospace companies are notorious for not communicating clearly during times of crisis. Now more than ever, it’s important to be proactive and transparent, to build trust with stakeholders like employees, customers and the public. With the right approach and effective communications, companies can successfully carry out their missions while also remaining publicly accountable.

Whether a successful rocket launch or the formation of a strategic partnership to achieve a common goal in getting one step closer to commercial space exploration, important milestones provide an opportunity to focus attention on the growing promise of space. Given how specialized this subject matter can be – from aerospace manufacturing and assembly, to engineering and mechanics, to launching and operating spacecraft – our job as communicators is to find what brings the story and relevance back to earth, to the earthlings who dream of one day venturing into space.

Jim O’Leary leads Edelman’s corporate communications practice across 22 offices in the U.S., Canada and Latin America. He was formerly a communications leader at Honeywell Aerospace.