The @Cmdr_Hadfield guide to social media in space

Space stationIt's very exciting to hear we're sending an astronaut into space for £16 million. Sorry, that's unfair. Tim Peake was selected from 8,400 potentials and the UK Space Agency's donation to the International Space Station (ISS) programme was 'well received'. Either way it's exciting stuff and Peake’s training for his outer space adventure is well under way. Now, how's this relevant from a communications perspective I hear you cry? For two reasons I answer.

1) The latest name in the esteemed space traveller list is Canadian, Chris Hadfield. A distinguished chap, Hadfield trained with the Royal Canadian Air Force before piloting several space shuttles and then recently taking command of the International Space Station. During his five months in orbit he managed to reignite the public’s interest in the space programme (and got himself reviewed by David Bowie). Manned space exploration has been pretty limited and once the first intrepid explorers set foot on the moon various governments have found it a challenge to keep the public engaged. Whether @Cmdr_Hadfield realised this or not and whether Nasa briefed him pre-launch on how best to reach and reconnect with a disengaged audience, he certainly managed it. Hadfield’s attracted over 990K Twitter followers with his videos, songs and banter with another ex-starship commander, @WilliamShatner. It simply wouldn't have been possible to reach so many people in such a short space of time without social media. Which leads me to point number two.

2) According to the Department for Business Innovation & Skills the UK government donated the money and put a candidate forward to try and inspire this country's young people. However, while repeated television appearances will publicise Peake's space odyssey, they won't necessarily reach the right people. How many children watch the news? Same goes for traditional PR. This country's national newspapers will cover the story regardless, as will the TV stations, because it's interesting and exciting, but once again, will it reach the right audience and is it in a format that age group can easily digest?

Hadfield filmed himself answering questions submitted via social media. He then topped it off with a rendition of Bowie's 'Space Oddity' before returning to earth on May 13. Not only can a younger audience relate but they also feel engaged – as though someone out there is taking them seriously. When children like a video they share it. On their Facebook walls, on Tumblr, on Snapchat, the medium's less important than the audience reach. If the government’s going to succeed in its youth-orientated endeavours then spending a few extra pounds on some specialist social media help probably isn't a bad idea. It has a Twitter account (@spacegovuk 45K followers), a YouTube account (512 subscribers) and a flickr account, but needs to up its game with a bit of innovative thinking. How about a massive open online course (MOOC) broadcast live from space? Why not video chat with five competition-winning schools from the station? What about a photo diary on Tumblr? Analysis of the social media landscape needs to be conducted in advance and plans put into place to make sure Peake’s exploits really do, as our Prime Minister put it, “…inspire the next generation to pursue exciting careers in science and engineering”.