Making Eagles Fly, A Chat with NASA’s Bob Jacobs
By Cindy Chin, CEO CLC Advisors, LLC
This article is part of a series of articles on design thinking and thought leaders that transform into what we at CLC Advisors, LLC call “i.e.,” the “idea economy.” Where ideas become and transform into widgets for those who choose to dare mighty things and build something.
I first met NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator of Communications, Bob Jacobs, during the transition of Space Shuttle Atlantis from Kennedy Space Center to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center, signalling the end of NASA’s 35-year space shuttle program five years ago. He is the man at comms mission control behind NASA’s 1500 websites, social media accounts, and official communications and part of a slice of living American history. When he asked one of his mentors before taking the job at NASA, his mentor advised him and said, “You can either continue to write about history or be a part of it.” He took the job. Those are big shoes to fill and Bob Jacobs would be the type of person to tell whether a design of a shoe is big enough and whether it will work. In his case they would be moon or anti-gravity boots and emerging technologies. He’s seen them all and then some.
Where did you start out in your career? When did you find your calling?
I started in broadcasting, specifically in radio in 1979. I was a Mass Communications freshman at Middle Tennessee State University and terrific of the future. I wasn’t really sure what to do, but this seemed like a good, general major. I visited the campus radio station with a friend who was more advanced in the major and fell in love. To understand my eventual career path you would have to know a little about the history of Nashville television. Let’s just press fast-forward and acknowledge that television and multimedia were the initial driving forces to a communications career that has now spanned nearly 40 years. I still consider myself a journalist at heart.
Early in my career I discovered the importance emerging technologies can play in effective communications. Now don’t get me wrong, platforms such as Snapchat and Twitter should not be considered communications solutions. They’re tools, no more effective than the invention of radio. You have to know how to use them. You still need to know how to integrate the technology with solid communications practices. And you’ll always need good writers and creative communicators to use those tools effectively.
What was your first NASA memory?
As a child, watching television coverage of Gemini missions in my grandmother’s den. I come from the Apollo generation. I was 8-years-old when Neil and Buzz landed on the moon. I remember the incredible joy I felt watching the first color images from Apollo 12 and crying when Alan Bean accidentally pointed the camera at the sun, burning out the pickup tube. There was no television that entire mission. I remember the networks covering the moonwalks with bad-looking stand-ins on a set and mission audio. It has been my greatest privilege to get to know and work with my childhood heroes and be able to call them friends.
What is it like to witness living history firsthand?
I was struggling joining NASA communications in late 2000. I was working at Associated Press in technology development and missed the editorial side, and we just didn’t find the right fit at AP. When the news chief position at NASA opened, I jumped at the chance, but I struggled with moving from a news organization to a position many consider to be PR. I talked about this with one of my mentors and he said, “You can either continue to write about history or be a part of it.” That was the nudge I needed. I officially joined NASA in July 2000. I have been fortunate to witness and be a part of history. High school students today have never known a time when humans weren’t living and working in space, or when there were working science laboratories on Mars. That’s heady stuff. I’m honored to help tell the stories of the scientists and engineers who achieve these amazing feats.
How much curiosity, creativity, and imagination is necessary in what you do daily? What is the percentage breakout?
What’s Edison’s old quote that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration? There’s a lot to that. Again, creative ideas can come easy. A lot of people have the answer. The trick is to know how to make that answer a reality. I love watching children at museums. Their minds aren’t cluttered with educations and bias and fear of the unknown. They ask the most outrageously creative yet simple questions. I don’t know how it works for others, but I spend a lot of time trying to plug into that kid who loved Lost in Space on TV. The kid who couldn’t wait for the teacher to pull out the television to watch a launch.
What are the key attributes that have contributed to your success? How did you define it?
Well, there’s a built-in assumption I’ve been successful. I’ll let outsiders make that determination. I’ve had many failures in my career. But if there are any keys to successful communications, it lies in thinking big, pushing boundaries, and then having a plan for making those big thoughts a reality. I don’t buy into many of today’s business buzzwords. I hate people who call themselves “ideators.” What the hell is that? Ninjas and gurus should steer clear of me.
Anyone can come up with solutions. The challenge is to be able to turn that solution into action and results. People who just want to throw out their grand ideas for someone else to execute is lazy. If I give you an idea, there’s going to be a tangible artifact at the end of the process, be it a book, video, event, or one of the world’s most recognized social media brands. Ideas are easy. Anyone can tell you to “do more concerts in the park.” The trick is to navigate within the available resources and structures of your organizations and still be able to execute. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t break rules. However, if you’re going to implement transformation that’s lasting and get other people to buy into your idea so it becomes part of the new model, you have to spend time working within the existing framework.
Finally, you have to surround yourself with smart and good people. Note the use of the word “good.” I mean that in every definable sense you can imagine. In the end, a leader is successful by the people who carry out the elements of any plan. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a lot of talented individuals who are good people. Organizations often mistake aggression and a**hole for talent. Being mean doesn’t make you good at being a leader. It just makes you mean.
It seems that the world is in crisis mode now on a daily basis. What is a key factor in crisis communications?
This is where my journalism bias emerges, but I believe it’s true. Transparency. People forgive mistakes. People do not forgive cover-ups or liars. To this day, Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the 1982 cyanide-laced capsules is still a case study in how to handle a crisis. They moved quickly to pull Tylenol off the market and the company’s leadership chose to deal directly with critical media inquiries instead of trying to “low key it.” When companies retreat, that’s when things can go south quickly.
NASA has two tragic examples that are both ends of the spectrum. The 1986 loss of Challenger was a lesson in how not to communicate. I was a producer in Tampa at the time and the agency wouldn’t confirm basic facts, such as the temperature at the launch pad at lift-off. The tragedy was compounded by shutting down communications by an agency with transparency written in its founding documentation. When we lost the Columbia crew 2003, I was at NASA and we were not going to repeat that mistake. Communications also was supported by leadership, with Administrator Sean O’Keefe leading the way saying anything factual up until loss of the orbiter would be publicly available. I was a NASA communications director at the time and we committed the agency to two briefings a day until the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was in place. Transparency is critical during a crisis and I’m stunned at the organizations and companies that withdraw when things go bad. By the way, as successful as I think we were as an academic study in the way we handled communications during the loss of Columbia, I would give anything if we could have safely concluded that mission and have those astronauts with their families today.
You mentioned the Jacobs Four Commandments in Communications. Can you elaborate more?
Everyone likes to put things in bite-sized chunks. While many examples can come across as trite, I have four basic commandments in communications. And if you look at the communications failures of any organization, the fault can be placed at ones of these guiding principles.
Commandment 1: News doesn’t get better with age.
Commandment 2: Tell your own bad news.
Commandment 3: If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will do it for you. And I allowed myself one self-serving/shameless-self-promotion principle.
Commandment 4: It’s important to “do it,” but it’s just as important to be seen “doing it.” Now, I don’t apply my fourth commandment to many crisis communications situations, but I do to any organization or company trying to build or improve a brand.
If web pages didn’t exist any longer, what would NASA.gov look like?
I think there will always be a need for content to rest somewhere. The danger of our highly-fragmented mediaverse is that we only get the information we want on the platforms we want it. I always want to be able to provide reason and a place to dig deeper into NASA content. Images from Hubble are incredible, but it’s the science behind those images that’s important. I’m not saying that the traditional brick-and-mortar website will always be around, but there should always be the desire and expectation that robust content rests somewhere, be it in apps or technology not-yet created. NASA research is so expansive and so integral to our future it’s hard to put it all under one roof. There’s a lot of electronic consolidation that should take place, don’t get me wrong. If a mission has four different websites designed for the public, that’s probably worthy of a discussion.
What keeps you up at night?
Losing life in doing what NASA does. Space is not a forgiving environment. The entertainment industry has gone to great lengths to inspire new generations of explorers and we enjoy working producers and filmmakers, but it often makes space look too easy. Take Star Trek. We just take gravity on the starship bridge for granted. We just assume they can feed 400 people on one spacecraft continually for years at a time. And let’s not even think about bathrooms. Folks who work in the aerospace industry can’t take one thing for granted and space communicators have to walk a fine line between plugging into the inspirational and fun aspects of exploration without forgetting that people have died in the pursuit of knowledge beyond Earth. Whether you’re conducting research aboard the International Space Station today or preparing for that future human landing on the Moon or that first human expedition to Mars, your systems and procedures have to work 100% of the time. Some people are thrilled when four out of five dentists recommend a gum. That’s a dangerously failing grade in space.
What does home mean to you?
I’m from Nashville, Tennessee. You can still hear a bit of the accent in my voice, despite decades of practice, phonetics, and voice and diction studies. It’s funny how the farther away you get from something them more you hold on to it. For a simple terrestrial being, it’s southern cooking, old country standards on the radio, and simple pleasures. Thinking about it from a space exploration point-of-view, it’s about reaching beyond the horizon but knowing you need a healthy planet to come home to. We should focus on achieving both.
What book(s) are you currently reading? Who is your favorite author?
I think you have to include all of the science fiction greats, from Bradbury to Heinlien. By nature of the job, I tend to read the books written by astronauts. Of those, I really enjoyed books by Mercury 7’s Wally Schirra, like Schirra’s Space, and Riding Rockets by space shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane. However, I’m currently reading A Sense of Urgency by John Kotter, a well-known author and Harvard Business School professor. I read a lot of Kotter. His 8-Step Process for Leading Change is a fundamental blueprint for organizational and cultural transformation. It’s not just theory. You can see how it can be done.
What gets you excited to get out of bed each morning?
Knowing that you’re working with people who pioneer new frontiers every day. Each mission, each discovery, each technology breakthrough is an opportunity to make history. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
Laser cats or sharks?
This isn’t even close. Sharks with laser beams on their heads are the best! Besides, I don’t see a lot of networks devoting a week of dedicated programming to cats.
Are there really aliens out there? (Just kidding.)
I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Or, at least, erase your memory. Not that we can do that sort of thing.
Thanks, Bob. Let’s keep this memory around for a little while longer, okay?More news on what daring thing Bob and I are up to soon. Stay tuned.
About Bob Jacobs
Bob Jacobs is a recognized leader in social media engagement, strategic and crisis communications, and innovative media development. He is currently the NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications and has directed projects and work that earned three Emmy Awards in Television, eight Webby Awards for the best Internet site, and three Shorty Awards for best social media.
Bob has earned four agency medals for exceptional achievement, exceptional service, and outstanding leadership. He is the senior career NASA spokesperson and serves as Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Communications, and often publicly represents the Office of Administrator and other senior agency leadership. He is responsible for directing and executing many of the agency’s outreach activities.
His creative communications approach led to the collaboration on such films as “Hidden Figures and “The Martian.” Bob led a number of public and education events related to the films, including public premieres and videos with Ridley Scott, Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson. He directed the collaboration on the Internet-based Third Rock Radio station and the highly-popular Angry Birds Space mobile gaming platform. Bob also developed, co-authored and edited four books, including “Hubble: A Journey through Space and Time” and “Apollo: Through the Eyes of the Astronauts,” plus a children’s book “The Astronauts Alphabet.”
A Nashville native, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University and a master’s degree from Seton Hall University.
For more than 50 years, NASA has been breaking barriers to achieve the seemingly impossible — from walking on the Moon to pushing the boundaries of human spaceflight farther than ever before. We work in space and around the world in laboratories and wind tunnels, on airfields and in control rooms to explore some of life’s fundamental mysteries: What’s out there in space? How do we get there? And what can we learn that will make life better here on Earth? We are passionate professionals united by a common purpose: to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research. Today, we continue NASA’s legacy of excellence and innovation through an unprecedented array of missions. We are developing the most advanced rockets and spacecraft ever designed, studying the Earth for answers to critical challenges facing our planet, improving the air transportation experience, and so much more. Join us as we reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humanity.
About Cindy Chin
Ms. Chin is an entrepreneur, venture strategist, & cultural ambassador of the arts & sciences. As CEO of CLC Advisors, LLC, she is an advisor & board member to founding startup teams, opportunity scout for VC & LP partners, a global strategic thought leader, & a sought-after speaker.
Cindy is also a NASA Datanaut, an open data innovation program to promote data science, coding, and gender diversity. The NASA Datanauts program operates within the Office of the CIO at NASA Headquarters. She is also a mentor in the Google Launchpad Mentor Program, Stanford University’s Technology Entrepreneurship and undergrad programs, and a member of the faculty of the Startup Executive Academy of Silicon Castles in Salzburg, Austria.
Cindy is passionate about social impact, smART cities, public-private sector partnerships & building great companies. She achieves this by defining strategies for building multidisciplinary ecosystems, accelerators, outreach, & innovation phases of ventures, alternative revenue generation & sustainability. Gender parity & diversity are factors for consideration.
About CLC Advisors, LLC
CLC Advisors, LLC is a firm of trusted advisors and management consultants focusing on development and execution strategies to build and incubate value-based business ventures, innovations, initiatives, and forward exponential technologies to future societies and smART cities. We are dedicated to finding solutions for traditional business models or expanding into the growing arenas of impact investing, corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and philanthropy venture capital.