You know you’re rich when you can have what equates to a multi-million dollar firework explode after four minutes in the air and refer to it as a learning experience. Elon Musk noted after his SpaceX rocket blew up that he “learned a lot” from the flight that lasted about half the time of the Rolling Stones’ “You can’t always get what you want.”
As much as it would be fun to beat up on the guy who somehow turned Twitter into a place that has baffled Stephen King, a more valuable use of our space here might be to turn this into a learning experience for media practitioners across the spectrum.
Thus, let us begin with…
NEWS LESSON 1: When it comes to leads, just tell me what happened.
A friend and colleague sent me an array of leads as a reminder of what can happen when writers get too into themselves…
This shit is remarkable:
SpaceX’s Starship lifted off the pad in Southern Texas and cleared the launchpad, its first milestone, but then began tumbling as it was preparing for stage separation and the vehicle came apart some four minutes into flight.
SpaceX’s Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built, took off from a launch pad on the coast of South Texas on Thursday at 9:28 a.m. ET, but exploded midair before stage separation.
SpaceX’s huge Starship rocket, the most powerful ever built, blasted off on an unpiloted maiden flight Thursday and successfully flew for more than two minutes before tumbling out of control and exploding in a cloud of flaming debris.
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Thursday launched its Starship rocket for the first time, but fell short of reaching space after exploding in mid-flight. No crew were on board.
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — The most powerful rocket ever built put on quite a show during its debut space launch.
As my friend noted, each lead seems to avoid the fact that a giant missile blew up and created quite a mess for people who were wondering if Musk’s effort would be better or worse than his work with Twitter.
The lesson here is simple. Just tell people what happened and why they should care in your lead. If you feel the need to wax poetic about a massive ship breaking free from the celestial bonds of Earth, go to a poetry slam.
NEWS LESSON 2: Completeness and clarity matter a great deal.
Shortly after the rocket turned into a flying junkyard, “think” pieces started to emerge about how this wasn’t really as bad as it seemed:
Though SpaceX hasn’t shared many details yet about what happened during Starship’s maiden voyage, one fact is known: It was intentionally ordered to explode.
This and several other stories noted that it wasn’t an unexpected explosion, but one deliberately set off by the SpaceX folks because of the risk of falling debris and other similar concerns for people on the ground.
That’s important to know, but it’s also worth noting that the REASON they blew this thing up was because the rocket had started to malfunction around that time. In other words, either way, this thing was not going to be a fully realized launch.
Both of these points are worth making clear right up front on stories that discuss the rocket, although it seemed like half the stories out there were doing some version of a “Ha Ha! Elon Sucks!” story and the other half were doing the “Oh, you simpletons. You do not understand the genius of Elon” stories.
Both are half true, in a way, but neither is clear or complete.
PUBLIC RELATIONS LESSON 1: Manage expectations
Dovetailing nicely with the info above, the first lesson good public relations practitioners learn is how to convey important information of interest to an audience in a transparent and direct way. In this case, that seemed to be lacking.
The follow up stories touch on how this taught people a lot, or how rockets fail a lot before they succeed or how they never really intended this thing to be totally successful. All of these things might be true, but the timing of those pieces is really terrible.
If you manage expectations people have for an event, you can better control the narrative in terms of what people should expect or not expect. For the longest time, people got used to NASA tossing spacecrafts into the heavens with nothing but total success. Musk probably knew (I’m guessing based on what’s coming out now) that this wasn’t going to be that.
Rather than tell people, “Hey, this thing is going to be in the air about as long as it takes to blow $20 in a slot machine at the Las Vegas airport,” he didn’t mention what could happen. Thus, the reaction from pundits and suddenly all of the “we learned stuff” responses sound like trying to polish a turd.
Put it this way: If I go to the mechanic to get my car fixed and he tells me, “It’s going to cost $300 and take two hours,” that’s my resting pulse for expectation. If he comes in at $250 or it takes an hour and a half, I’m going to be thrilled. However, if he tells me it’ll cost $250 and will take an hour and a half, but instead it’s $300 and two hours, I’m going to be upset.
PUBLIC RELATIONS LESSON 2: Don’t give people a reason to mock you.
Perhaps the one thing people will remember most of this mess was the linguistic calisthenics that Musk and crew used to explain the rocket’s demise:
This approach to reality reminds me of the time that I covered the Mifflin Street Block Party, which devolved into fire, arrests and the destruction of a fire truck.
When I called the police to determine if they called a 10-33 (Riot in progress), I was told I shouldn’t call it a riot. I then outlined all of the stuff I saw there: A car burned to a shell, porches ripped to pieces, fires torching the street, kids screaming “f— the pigs” and more before asking, “If it wasn’t a riot, what was it?”
“It was a large, prolonged disturbance,” the officer said before hanging up on me.
A “rapid unscheduled disassembly” is not only jargon, but it’s clearly mock-worthy. I get that you don’t necessarily want to be this blunt in your assessment of the launch, but come on… You might have been better off going with “we had an oopsie” at that point.
If there’s one thing the internet is good at, it’s mockery. The last thing you want to do is softball it in for the folks out there who really enjoy roasting the hell out of you.