How NASA Handled Nowak

It was perhaps the most unusual public-relations challenge in NASA history. One astronaut drove across country to confront another over a spaceman they both admired—leaving a criminal case and a trail of tabloid headlines in her wake. The February arrest of then-astronaut Lisa Nowak on charges of assault and attempted kidnapping (her lawyer has filed notice that he plans to plead not guilty by reason of insanity) brought unwanted scrutiny to a space program already beleaguered by mechanical malfunctions and shrinking financial support. This week, NASA released e-mails offering a glimpse into how the agency handled the scandal. One officer's e-mail suggested trying Nowak (who, along with her love interest, is no longer a member of the astronaut corps) in military court to limit media access, a suggestion the agency quickly dismissed. So how did the space crew do in fending off these public-relations asteroids? NEWSWEEK spoke with Gene Grabowski, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Levick Strategic Communications, who worked damage control on the national pet-food recalls and the toxic Chinese toy imports earlier this year. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How do you think NASA responded to the scandal?
Gene Grabowski: They could have done more. They were in a tight spot, admittedly. It was in some sense legal, and beyond what they could do. But it opened NASA up to criticism—made people ask, made me ask, "Is this the NASA we know?" I grew up in the 1960s, watching commercials for Tang. Being an astronaut was the highest of aspirations. For baby boomers and to some extent those who are younger, it was, no question, one of the great institutions. Here it was that the last vestiges of American greatness had crumbled and they needed to say it still is great, this is why, this is what we are going to do to keep it that way. In fact, it was just the opposite, because they reacted slowly and not that strongly. NASA seemed to make it seem that they had to wait for legal process.

What actions should they have taken?
They should have acted independently and more forcefully. They should have announced they were launching an internal examination and expecting results immediately. They need to restore confidence. They have to speak to the citizens, the younger generation and say, "This is an aberration, this is not what we are. We run a ship-shape organization, we're going to suspend people, relieve people of duty, we are going to take action to make sure this doesn't happen again in the future." It appears they were letting the legal process take the priority and saying we can't comment on this. That's a problem. Rule No. 1: take responsibility. By blaming their inaction on the legal process, they weren't doing that. Rule No. 2: control the pictures.

The mug shots of Lisa Nowak were unflattering, but how could they have controlled them?
They could have floated out better pictures. Flood the press with photos in suits or better yet, uniforms, at least competing images that are favorable. This is vital—especially when talking about something as important as the astronaut program.

What's Rule No. 3?
Create some kind of structure, some kind of system to study the situation and act responsibly to implement it. I handled the pet-food crisis. One of the things we did at the pet-food association was to create a national pet-food commission that issued a report at end of three months. By creating a commission we acted quickly and responsibly. We had full-page ads and presented it to Congress. It's not enough in today's world to just do the right thing, but to also show the world that you are doing the right thing.

What's the difference between how private industry and government agencies handle scandals?
Increasingly there's less and less difference. We are talking about public perception, and people expect government to operate responsibility and efficiently. That's one of the reasons there are so many independent contractors in Iraq.

Should NASA have waited until forced by the Freedom of Information Act to release the e-mails?
I think it makes it look like they were dragging their feet. There may have been some legal reason behind it, but it's always best to rip the Band-Aid off, to get this behind you and take the action yourself. Don't let someone take that off. If the organization doesn't tell the story itself, others will tell it for you, and they will fill in the blanks. That's Rule No. 5: tell the story yourself. That's the story right now, it's been told by too many others. That enables something as insignificant as an alleged fact that she wore the diapers to become what everybody seized upon. [Nowak's defense lawyers have denied that she wore diapers on the cross-country drive]. That's not even germane to the story. When you ask people to say what they remember about this, that's what they are going to say: she wore diapers. When something like this happens, you have to immediately think, "What's the story that's going to be told out there if we don't come up with the story?" You have to come up with a story about a troubled woman who had to be removed, and took rash action, and you need to be respectful of her. You have to devise the right story whether you are in government or a private corporation.