Beginning a Career in Public Relations

Friday, July 08, 2005

An Interview with NASA/Johnson Space Center Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Carpenter

I am excited to share with you my recent interview with Dan Carpenter, NASA/Johnson Space Center Deputy Chief of Staff. Dan has held several public affairs positions in the Marine Corps including recruiting duty, several operational public affairs positions and also served as Director of Public Affairs in Okinawa, Japan from 1996-98 during a very intense timeframe for our forces in Okinawa due to host nation sensitivities.

Read on to learn more about Dan's work with NASA, his experiences with the Columbia tragedy and his thoughts as NASA returns to flight this month. Dan reminds our readers that the opinions expressed in this are entirely his own and in no way reflect the views of NASA or the federal government.

Kelly: Dan, please tell our readers a bit about your background - where you attended college, what you studied and what you enjoyed the most.

Dan: I studied Broadcast Journalism at the University of Mississippi, graduating cum laude in 1979 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Marine Corps the same day. I served 20 years in the Corps, traveling across the country to Europe, Thailand, Australia, Japan, Korea, SW Asia/Persian Gulf and I once spent the night at Wake Island, where the sun rises on US territory. I am a life-long learner. I always tried to learn new techniques and how others did things. I attended a one-semester grad course at Oklahoma and received two masters degrees (one in MS IT Management and one in public administration). Even if you can't get a masters, always do things that stretch you, that make you grow, because if you are not growing, then you are dying on the vine.

From college, the journalism classes that stayed with me the longest were the writing classes and classes that made me think or innovate. My favorite class as an undergrad was PoliSci (International Relations); in grad school it was The American Presidency--both because they made me think. The ability to think on your feet and/or to write on deadline (whether for a paper or a boss) is priceless. Writing is the one skill I want my folks to have; I can teach them most anything else. I believe it is imperative to have a personal writing style that you can depend on in crunch time.

Kelly: What advice do you offer to students and new professionals who are pursuing a career in public relations and are interested in public affairs?

Dan: Learn about the American system--political, economic, social, etc. If I had it to do over again, I would major in political science or history and learn the journalism stuff in grad school. If you are intent on learning PR or journalism, then get a minor in PoliSci or History--or at least take enough classes to understand what makes this country so great when you compare it to others. No nation has made a democracy work for itself--and spread it to so many other places--as the United States. If you can't get a paid internship, then volunteer for a nonprofit.

This field has so many opportunities to gain experience from what I have seen in my five years in Houston, it is amazing. So many "kids" have so much experience at graduation that if you can't get a paid gig, volunteer for a nonprofit and do their Web site or newsletter. Write a communications plan for them. Do something. You will feel good about it, and you have experience and material for your portfolio.

Public relations and public affairs are very similar--they use many of the same tools and techniques. If you can write for a PR or ad agency, you can work in government or nonprofit public affairs. In my honest opinion, public affairs is more about relationships and stakeholders with a little customer service sprinkled in (I myself am big on CSR). I have never worked in a PR agency, but my understanding after talking to many people (and hiring several PR agency pros) is that customer service is numero uno and you do things a bit more creative--like go boldly where government folks don't.

Kelly: From a communications standpoint, what challenges exist within the government when creating messages for your many audiences?

Dan: I briefly touched on it above, we have many, many stakeholders and a few customers. In my own personal view, I tend to look at internal folks as customers and external constituencies as stakeholders. The PUBLIC (citizens, museums, students, etc.), the President and our local HR shop, programs, and leaders are customers. Community leaders, congressionals, Office of Management and Budget, science organizations and associations, etc., are all stakeholders. Stakeholders are as important as customers oftentimes since they can greatly influence how we are perceived by the public--and actually do more of that than our customers.

Whenyou have that many audiences, you have a great challenge on your hands to develop messages that resonate with that many publics. On the other hand, it gives you a great opportunity to speak to a great portion of the population and in this day of Webcasting and satellite TV, you can share a your story with the public directly.

Kelly: Dan, can you describe what it was like to handle the tragedy surrounding the loss of Columbia?

Dan: Wow. I have worked several crises during my military career but thankfully nothing like the Columbia. Two and a half years later, it still shapes our Agency and our people...it will be a life defining moment for so many people. That part of it can never be adequately described.

The public affairs aspects are a bit more attainable. Huge spike in attention. We had no media in our newsroom as Columbia flew towards the Cape (wanna guess how many will be there next flight?). Less than 24 hours later we had in excess of 1,500 media onsite at Johnson Space Center. I spent my public affairs life always preparing for my organization's worst disaster and hoped it never came.

We were prepared at Johnson Space Center and were greatly saddened that we had to put those preparations to use. Some day I will write a case study on it but for now just take my word that you need to be able to write, move and talk with unending pressure on you when the situation calls for it. It was simply the most pressure I have been under in my professional career--and it was there from February 1st through the end of August while the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) was working its report.

Kelly: Given the recent report on shuttle safety and the impending launch of Discovery as early as July 13, how are you preparing as an agency?

Dan: You know what, our Agency has had one focus since the CAIB released its report August 26th, 2003 and that has been to return the Space Shuttle to safe flight. We have diligently worked all of the CAIB Report issues, including the three that were not completed but will continue to be worked. While we continue to work those, we have incorporated their open status into our risk assessment.

Next week, we approach an opportunity to launch, to test our preparations and test some additional measures up on orbit. Tens of thousands of people have dedicated large portions of their lives for more than two years to prepare for that opportunity and we are confident that as an Agency and as individuals that we have done as much as possible we are ready to fly--given what we understand about space flight and the constraints that we live within.

Make no mistake, humans leaving the bonds of earth and returning is risky business. We have people on the ground and as astronauts in Discovery's crew who believe it is worth the risk. They are neither daredevils nor irrational people. They are mothers and fathers who have dedicated much of their adult life to learning their profession-- human space flight. They believe that pushing the boundaries of space flight is worth the risk; they believe that while ships are safe in port, they were made to sail--and into harms way if that is necessary. That we have moons and planets to explore with humans. That while robots are great for trailblazing and reporting back on the environment, humans have an onboard computer and mobility that far outstrips any robot that we can send to far off places. And more than that, we can reason and think in real time.

Next week, if the weather holds, you will see humans thinking and acting as the shuttle Discovery visits the crew of the International Space Station for the first time in over two years.

Dan invites you to click here to learn more about the crew of both Discovery and the International Space Station.

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