Why NASA beats ESA when it comes to public outreach

In the February issue of CAP journal – a free, peer-reviewed journal for astronomy communicators – is an article by science journalist Diane Scherzler comparing the North American and European space agencies when it comes to press relations and media accessibility. Scherzler is an editor with the German broadcaster SWR.

In her article Scherzler makes an entirely justifiable complaint about the European Space Agency (ESA), based on that organisation’s relative inaccessibility to media professionals. Scherzler also repeats an oft-heard comment from journalists that NASA‘s outreach material is superior to that of ESA, and that ESA’s often tardy response to requests shows that the agency has no conception of the time-sensitive nature of news. As a result NASA is very often the first port of call for reporters pursuing space science and technology leads.

Look at ESA-published print and online material and it is clear that the agency puts significant effort into its PR activities. Unlike with NASA, however, ESA pays little or no regard to journalistic demand. That is, the agency gives news reporters only what it thinks is appropriate, and not what the journalists ask for.

Professional media workers aside, ESA’s online outreach material is not exactly attractive to families casually web surfing of a lazy Sunday afternoon. ESA appears not to do fun, despite the inclusion of a “kids” section on the “web portal”. This is a pale imitation of the NASA equivalent.

ESA is a classic example of an arcane and media-unfriendly bureaucracy. But there are similar problems with other institutions, including the European Commission. Much of my science writing involves reporting on developments in materials science. Over the past few years I’ve become so frustrated with official bodies that I tend now to avoid covering European policy stories unless I’m not reliant on official input, and can replace this with an empty chair if needs be.

US federal agencies can also be obstructive, but it is definitely easier to get our friends across the Pond to respond to journalistic requests. Many European PR people, on the other hand, simply expect journalists to regurgitate their press releases. And on the rare occasions when one manages to secure interviews with officials the responses are often content-free.

Diane Scherzler is not the only European science journalist who turns west when looking for a good space story. I hope that ESA takes note of this criticism and puts its house in order. The agency does fantastic work, and this deserves the widest possible exposure and recognition.