Interviewee:    Mr. Brian Duff

Interviewer:    Dr. John Mauer

Date:    May 1, 1989

Place:    National Air and Space Museum


DR. MAUER: Brian, I have here about a page out of oral history interview that Martin Collins did with George Mueller and George Mueller expresses a rather critical view of Julian Scheer as Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs. George Mueller says, "Julian Scheer was far more prone to maintain his personal control over the external relations and that was more difficult over time than what the congressional area--he's making a comparison--"partly because dealing with the media is always difficult and partly because Julian managed to get himself at cross purposes with almost everybody in the media one time or another and so you got a build up of an adversarial relationship between NASA and the media and that's continued more or less to this day." You worked very closely with Julian. I know you have a rather different view of it but I think it would be useful for you to give your understanding of what the relationship was between Julian Scheer and George Mueller and what that meant for administration at NASA?

MR. DUFF: I'd be glad to. The first thing I'd say is that I cannot accept the fact that NASA had an adversarial relationship with the media. Anyone who says that just hasn't examined the hard history of what's happened and what the relationship really was and is. The relationship between NASA and the media, and as we've talked about this in previous interviews, was pioneering effort, in terms of cooperation and mutual trust and. Over twenty-five years the result of a very few breaches of that trust on both sides.

    I have had the advantage of working not only with NASA three times, but also as head of public affairs for HEW, as head of public affairs for Amtrak, and as head of public affairs for the National Urban Coalition. Anyone who thinks that NASA had an adversarial relationship with the media just doesn't know what a real adversarial relationship is. If you think you've got an adversarial relationship with the media, you ought to go over to the Nixon White House and find out what an adversarial relationship really is. When you have one, you know it. You cannot move. You're in gridlock.     The situation has never, ever approached that at NASA. NASA had a sweetheart relationship. Considering the visibility of NASA's role, considering the high risk efforts that NASA was involved in, considering the opportunities to stub your toe and make a mistake, considering the real mistakes that NASA did make, in which it was able to work through and with the media and ultimately get a very fair shake, I think that that's just not true.

    Whether Julian had an adversarial relationship with individual reporters may or may not be true. Julian was a very strong personality. He didn't pull his punches. One of the phrases I remember with Julian--he'd lean back with a cigarette curling up into one eye and somehow managed never to blink. He'd say, "I'll tell you one goddamned thing" and he'd scratch his stomach at the same time and you'd think, "This guy is tough as nails! He did have a very tough exterior. If he thought a reporter had screwed him, or even worse, had played fast and loose with Jim (James) Webb or with the program, he would tell them in four-letter words. But an adversarial relationship with the media as a whole is not true. I think George Mueller is wrong in that area, and I think George Mueller worked very hard to have his own relationship with the media, and I think he curried a relationship with individual members of the media, which is one of the things Julian never did. He had no favorites. There were good reporters, and bad reporters. We were told to treat them all alike, but some of our predecessors had favorites, television over print or something like that.

    Another thing--an illustration of whether I'm kidding myself is that I remember the day that Julian finally did leave NASA. He had gotten into a fight with a man who was even more dangerous to him than George Mueller, and that was George Low. He had gotten into trouble with Low because he had balked on a number of points on which he and Low disagreed on policy. I don't know the details because I wasn't in Washington, but I do know this, that on the day of Julian's resignation, his firing in effect, was announced, the Washington Post, in an editorial that I've never seen duplicated anywhere else in the country said, "The best PR (public relations) man in Washington was fired this morning." That was the lead sentence in that editorial. And certainly the Post wasn't unique. Most professionals in the media who covered space would acknowledge that Julian, like him or hate him, was not only a consummate professional, but also ran one of the toughest, most visible long-term government projects of modern peace time and survived a long time, eight years, did a damned good job, and in many ways cut new ground.

    The NASA approach to government public affairs was used as a model, and is used today as a model by a lot of agencies. It did a lot for government's perception of what good public relations can be, and it has been copied by a number of corporations and adapted to their peculiar circumstances. The concept that it isn't cute to lie to the press. If you get away with something, you haven't won a victory but postponed defeat. Those kind of things that Julian was able to impress upon NASA and its leaders, provided a public relation model. I hope you have a chance to talk with other people and see whether they agree with that.

MAUER: What about Mueller wanting to have his own public affairs?

DUFF: He had his own public relations organization, and I'm sure to this day that if George was asked, he'd say he wasn't trying duplicate NASA's public relations but to supplement it. But in an organization like NASA, where you have one administrator--I know that part of the problem Julian had with George was that he felt that George was running his own public relations operation. It's unkind to George, but I think Julian thought, at least, that a major objective of that public relations organization was to publicize George Mueller, in the way they were publicizing the program. I was on Julian's organization so I'm biased on that one, but there are still people in the NASA organization, in public affairs who were hired by George Mueller to do press releases. You could argue that you don't need two PR operations in one federal agency.

MAUER: When Julian Scheer left, did that influence you in leaving Houston?

DUFF: I think so, yes. It's funny, it didn't even occur to me until we were talking, but I did resign immediately after Julian left. Part of it was that I had said from the beginning that I thought two years in Houston was about as much as I wanted. I happen to like Washington. I liked it a lot more in those days. I started here. I was a Washington correspondent. I wanted to get back to Washington. I had a lot of fun in Houston, but I really felt myself out of my element in Houston.

    When Julian left, I called George Low and said, "Am I under consideration to be the director of public affairs?" he said, " No." I wasn't upset about that. It seemed to me a very natural answer, because, of course, if you don't want Julian, you don't want Brian. It's one of those things. You don't hire a someone who is in fact a carbon copy of the person you just fired, and so on that basis, I began looking seriously and I took the job with Elliot Richardson a few weeks later. I got both of my objectives: one, to get back to Washington, and also to clear the air for me when I talked with George. George and I got along very well. I worked for George in Houston.

MAUER: George Low?

Duff: George Low. I always admired him. He's a very strong personality, and much more the engineer than Jim (James) Webb.      The reason Julian and I got along so well with James Webb was--I'd call him a politician, except it sounds like I'm diminishing him, and I'm not diminishing him. He was a politician in the best sense. And of course his public relations style we tended to worry about the public perception of NASA, and so an administrator who was very strong in the area of public communication and public understanding and the ability to sell the program was, of course, the kind of administrator we would relate to.

    George Low was an engineer's engineer, and in the same way, you could say that Jim Webb was a politician's politician. We were a little more comfortable with Webb than we were with George, but I admired George very much and worked with him closely in Houston. He was a very very strong supporter, by the way, of me in Houston, as was Chris (Christopher) Kraft. He wanted a team in Houston, and he decided that you really had to have professional players.

MAUER: What was the crux of the situation between Houston and Headquarters? What were the major problems that you had to deal with?

DUFF: They weren't problems as much as they were the natural dynamic tension between the field center and Washington Headquarters. The same thing that occured between Ford (Motor) Company Headquarters in Dearborn and the field division, the Pontiac division. That's a kind of dynamic tension that is almost part of that kind of institutional relationship. Headquarters has certain functions and responsibilities and the field centers have certain functions and responsibilities.

    Houston was the consummate field center. It had the real job of flying human beings in space, and building the spacecraft and the system, controlling them, and training the astronauts.     Washington had the dirty job of getting the money and gaining the public support, interfacing with the rest of the huge federal government we had there, doing the infighting with the other agencies that are always after our budget or our people or our prestige--our access to the president or the key chairman. So, from the point of view of the field center, which has that wonderful luxury of being able to get up in the morning and do something and see it done and look at it and see tangible progress--. I sometimes think that the guy in the field center, who looks down his nose at the paper pushers and the bean counters in Washington, don't realize how lucky he or she is to have the fun job. It's always more fun to be there on the firing line. You're doing the launches, you're sitting there with all the fancy machinery and paraphernalia, and up in Washington some guy is slogging up to the Hill to explain for the 55th time why someone's cousin didn't get hired.

    It's a very tedious and slow process that's involved with Headquarters. At the same time, the country and the president and Congress think that Headquarters is "in charge," and you have these strong fiefdoms, Houston, Huntsville, Cokefield, the Cape (Canaveral), the Kennedy Space Center, Langley (Research Center), all of which would be just as happy if the phones stopped ringing and they were left alone to do their business, and to put up with the visiting firemen from Headquarters and view them with annoyance if not contempt. In fact, one of the good phrases at NASA is "Headquarters hummers." Have you ever heard that phrase?


Duff: It's a characterization. They say, "We're having another visit from the Headquarters hummers." A Headquarters hummer is a guy who stands in front of a spacecraft, or any kind of device, with his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth from his toes to his heels, as someone explains what it is, and he says, "Hmm, hmm, hmm," to disguise the fact that he doesn't have the foggiest idea of what you're telling him. That's what they call a Headquarters Hummer.

    Clearly what I'm doing is cartooning the relationship a little bit here. There are very strong people at Headquarters and very strong relationships and so forth. But one of the jobs I had at Houston was to constantly remind people that they may be a pain in the neck but we need them. On the other hand, I tried to tell the Headquarters people that the people in Houston weren't just absolutely unwilling to cooperate, and they weren't a bunch of hardheaded, pigheaded engineers who wouldn't listen to reason and didn't understand the importance of legislation and appropriations and so forth. When you get down to it, considering what NASA does, the relationship between the field centers and Headquarters was not too bad, especially in the old days when Congress was fairly liberal.

    Because of the availability of funds, there was a great deal of travel of NASA people. Both Headquarters and field center people traveled a lot, and were exposed to each other more than they would be in a very poor federal agency in which travel was at a minimum. All they ever know about Headquarters is the memos that tend to be written by an aide who doesn't understand what the real situation is. That wasn't as true at NASA, partly because of the travel, partly because of the great efforts. These huge efforts required people to be on the ground and to see each other and work with each other.

MAUER: Was the amount of travel greater in the Apollo period than later? Or has NASA really been able to keep that up?

Duff: I think they've never really lost it. I see now that NASA is going toward telecommunications, teleconferencing. I'm sure they'll use teleconferencing. They'll probably develop it to a science. The physical setup for teleconferencing now, is quite effective, and all the centers can have face-to-face real time conversations.

MAUER: They were doing it even before they had the camera work. They had phone line teleconferences. I attended one and it was very interesting.

DUFF: I take some of the credit for public affairs. The public affairs office pioneered in this area. At Houston we started teleconferencing press conferences very early in the program, inwhich the news people in Florida could ask questions or participate live in press conferences at Houston, for example. Or the people in Houston could participate live in press conferences that might be occurring at a shuttle landing site at Edwards (Air Force Base). That was even available, certainly the audio was available in the Apollo days, and the picture would have been available at all sites because they had the ability to do television. That was one of the uses of the NASA television system that was developed. The NASA television system was actually a viable small network. It was the equivalent of a small television network that had its own camera people, its own mobile vans, its own producers, its own control centers or broadcast centers.

    When you talk about the tension between Headquarters and the field centers, you have to ask, "Compared to what?" I suspect that in some agencies, there is no communication. There's no tension if there's no communication. In others, there may be bickering and so forth.

    But NASA had, and I keep using this old phrase, dynamic tension, based on the jobs the people had. There was a very positive relationship, in spite of the natural adversarial position, which is that the objectives of Headquarters are not the same as the objectives of the field centers. The objective of the field center is to get the job done. The objective of Headquarters is the political job that it has. NASA, particularly in the Apollo days, managed to surmount that pretty well--not without fireworks and bruised feelings once in a while and shouting matches. But to go back to one of the things I said in an earlier tape, I don't think anyone ever took it personally. No one person sees it all, but they gave each other credit for all having the same objective.

    I don't know whether George Mueller would say that was true of Julian or not. He might have said Julian was an egomaniac, and Julian might say something else, but generally speaking, there was a respect for the position, and for the objectives if not the position taken.     

    Of course, the NASA rule for the centers, is that if you don't agree and you keep your mouth shut, you're not doing anyone a favor. That rule, that modus, may eroded a little bit by the time we got to Challenger, and caused some of the Challenger problems, but--.

MAUER: Yes it has. You left Houston and moved out. Now we're getting to the third time that you were with NASA.

Duff: I left NASA very shortly after Julian left. I went to work for Elliot Richardson, where I found myself in an old line federal Cabinet department, and it was like night and day. I don't want to spend a lot of time on HEW because you're not doinga study on HEW, but there you had what one would really characterize as the classic infighting, the classic power struggles. HEW is a very political agency. I was working for an extremely able secretary. But when Elliot Richardson left HEW-- he left on Friday night and I was gone Monday morning. There was no conversation about it all, "Your resignation has been accepted, please write it as quickly as possible!" (laughter). And I went to Amtrak, where I had seven wonderful years.

MAUER: Before we talk about Amtrak, let me just be blunt. I think will be some people, when they see the transcript of this interview who will question what you have to say. You're so positive about NASA. Let's not get into the details of HEW for its own sake because you're right, I'm not here to talk with you about it. But I think that it is valid to say, I can be positive about NASA because of an alternative experience, and I think that's what you're suggesting. Perhaps you can give one or two or three examples to illustrate why your experience at HEW, in your mind at least, upholds your positive view of NASA.

DUFF: There were individuals at HEW who felt just as passionately about their objectives as my NASA individuals did, in some cases more passionately because they were passionate the welfare system or delivering better health care or improving eduction in the country. But, there wasn't the teamwork. There wasn't the sense of a team. NASA had about 20,000 civil servants, HEW had about 70,000 civil servants. HEW's budget was, I think, 70 billion--in those days. NASA's was a fraction of that. NASA's responsibility and its charge from Congress was clear and clean and achievable. HEW's was diverse and scattered and in many cases, given the resources and the time frame, was probably unachievable or nearly unachievable. I think of my HEW experience as being tremendously challenging--but painful. The amount of infighting in a place like HEW was tremendous. It's a collection of people who are all fighting for different things, and fighting for limited resources to do many different things.

MAUER: But there's this quality of fighting that goes on in NASA.

DUFF: Yes, but the fights at NASA were fights among people who basically respected each other. That doesn't mean the people at HEW didn't respect each other. But the people at NASA, on a whole, and I'm talking about all three times that I was there--I was continually struck by the fact that if you were in the room with people, you were arguing with them but you respected them. You did not for a moment think that they were doing it because of their own particular career, I never thought of that for a minute. I never worried that someone would try to derail one of my projects because they wanted my job, for example. The sense of teamwork, the sense of belonging on a team, is very strong at NASA. That I don't think anyone can gainsay. You might find people who have personal experiences who didn't agree with that,but I came out of NASA with a very strong feeling of camaraderie, of esprit (de corps), of teamwork, of liking the people I worked for, liking the people I worked with, and liking the people who worked for me. A lot of very big effort at NASA goes into rewarding people and giving them credit. NASA probably prints more certificates of awards than any agency I can think of, and it's part of that whole sense that we're all part of a big family. I mentioned in an earlier interview the (NASA) alumni league. I think it's unusual in a civilian agency to have people who want to be alumni. I can think of the State Department, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)--when you begin to tick off the ones that have, you think of organizations that do have that sense of esprit (de corps).

    HEW, is almost by definition, is a collection of warring, scrapping, competing interests. People in HEW tend to be professionals who came from some place else, with their own expertise and their own concerns, they wanted to come into HEW and get something for their particular area, whether it was early child care or whatever, they were by nature competing. That sort of thing may characterize more big federal agencies. But the Urban Coalition and HEW were my two experiences with socially oriented institutions, and maybe this comes out of that kind of assignment. Obviously you're fighting for individual interests. It's much easier to be statesmanlike when you're working with machinery and technology than it is about people who are hungry or people who aren't getting what they deserve from society.

MAUER: What about the differences that existed between manned space flight and space science at NASA? How does that fit within your basic thesis? There are some pretty hard feelings.

DUFF: Yes. Most of my experience, until the shuttle and until I was head of all public affairs, was with manned flight. Since I'm not a scientist, I got into NASA as, in a sense, an amateur. I didn't bring with me a discipline that I thought of as being abused or overlooked. When I began to run public affairs for NASA, I made a very careful effort to give everyone the same treatment. Obviously, the shuttle, when it's flying, tends to be the predominant effort. But for example, during the period that I was head of public affairs for NASA, we had a couple of periods when the shuttle wasn't active. Not because of Challenger. But one year we decided to concentrate very heavily on aeronautics, what we called the first "A" in NASA of aeronautics, and we concentrated very heavily on publicizing NASA contributions to aeronautics. That's a side of NASA you don't usually think about. You're worried about how the scientists feel. We also concentrated a lot of attention on unmanned flights and worked very hard to get maximum attention directed to the Voyager, for example.

    In that process, I had an early run-in with Carl Sagan, who was very critical of NASA's public affairs, and by the end of that period, Carl Sagan was not a close friend. We just didn't have that kind of contact, but worked closely together. Carl Sagan actually did a lot to help us persuade the scientists that we weren't against them, but that we simply had to take these resources of the agency in proportion, and there was no sense talking about space science at the time when space science was inactive and manned flight was active. We who respond to our clients, which are not the media--our clients at NASA are, but our targets are the media, and if you're flying the shuttle it's much easier to get in the paper talking about the shuttle than it is about some unmanned spacecraft. On the other hand, you don't just pack up with the shuttle stops flying. You work on these other things. But we put a lot of resources behind it, and I would say that the value of what we did was quite critical. In that period, we tried hard.

    That may not answer your question. Your question was, was there the same sense of team work?

MAUER: Yes. What you had to say about Sagan does speak to it, but it doesn't speak to all of it.

DUFF: That particular example may not be the best. I worked for scientists and for engineers, but I tended to work for scientists who had their payloads, who were working with the manned program. Then, of course, when the shuttle came along, those who had their payloads on the shuttle to some extent--

    I always thought that, while there was vigorous competition, it wasn't venial, or evil, or motivated by evil. It was the kind of competition that you get in an organization where you've got people who can't get where they want to go. I do think they felt that we were too much torqued by the "glamour" of the astronauts, and I think some of that was justified. Maybe I'm just your perennial blue bird of happiness, but I never saw it.

    You've touched upon one of the areas of constant conflict: the scientists who did these things with efficient unmanned spacecraft, and the manned flight guy who is probably a throwback to powered airplanes and wanted to do it with pilots. That's a genuine division within NASA, probably within space, by the very nature of worl we have today, and will probably take care of itself as, little by little, the computer replaces man everywhere. It's happening in aeronautics, as the airplane gets harder and harder to fly, as the computer becomes more and more involved in flying airplanes. Fifty years from now it will be even more so.

    But the key thing is that even Carl, even the scientists, never thought that the guys in Houston were dishonest. I think they thought that they were misguided and they were certainly given too much credit, or that the allocation of resources was not justified, that it was pandering to the public's desire forheroes and so forth. And they were partly right. There's no question that NASA used in my area, its ability to get on the front page and on television, through the astronauts. And there were times that we were selling short some of the other things. But people should go back and look at the record, because when look at the flow of information out of NASA, I know we put the ADA effort into the unmanned program.

    The argument that Sagan and I had early on was that--he didn't like our press releases, he thought they were dull and I had to tell him that what he was talking about was what was not press releases but essays on what people ought to think, not factual reports on what was happening. He wanted editorials and essays, which he writes very well. But Carl Sagan wouldn't last a week in the NASA Newsroom, because he wants to lecture people on what they ought to think and what's important, and we were trying to say that it is our job to repot what's factual in as unbiased way as possible. We almost try to be dull, because we're not supposed to be writing a Pulitzer Prize winning story. We're supposed to leave that to the guys writing for the paper. What we're supposed to do is give that man the 4 x 5 cards he needs to put together his story. Of course, we'll use the spokesmen of NASA, i.e. he'll use the Ed Stone he'll use the astronauts, to express personal opinions, but the public affairs officer doesn't express personal opinions. He puts this material forward. But Sagan wanted an advocacy-oriented program, and if we had tried that, we would have lost our credibility.

MAUER: Let's move forward and get you back into NASA for the third time.

DUFF: The story was that toward the end of the Apollo period, the last few flights, the pattern had pretty well been set. I was out at NASA for nine years, but I came back because they were beginning to fly the shuttle again. The guy who brought me back was Bob (Robert) Allnutt. Bob Allnutt had been general counsel for NASA under Bob Frosch. Allnutt had come back to NASA. Allnutt had in the interim worked for Comsat and he also worked on the (Capitol) Hill, as general counsel for one of the (Congressional) committees. Allnutt was a political administrator type, an engineer-attorney. He was someone who I had always gotten along well, with and I think they thought of him as someone who would do what Julian did. I'm sure that phrase was used, "Let's try to get someone who would do this the way Julian did it." It's tough to say that, but one of the problems was that they had had a series of public affairs officers who were abrasive. One of them had absolute knockdown dragout fights with most of the managers--a guy named (John) Donnelly. Donnelly himself, I'm sure, would say that.

MAUER: Donnelly, what was his first name?

DUFF: John Donnelly.

MAUER: What was his position?

DUFF: He was assistant administrator for public affairs. Remember, there's been a varying view of whether public affairs is a political position or not. In most agencies, it is. Julian was Democrat. I'm a Democrat. The concept of the public affairs officer was exempt from the political process ebbs and flows. The current people in public affairs in NASA are political appointees. Shirley Green came right out of George Bush's office. Frank Johnson, who replaced--but that's getting ahead of myself.

    Anyway, Bob Allnutt called me one day at Amtrak and said, "We're looking for a new public affairs person. The guy we got doesn't know how to relate to the senior staff. They just don't talk to each other." I said, "I know what you mean, but I don't want to move. I like it where I am."

    A year went by, and one night--five o'clock on Friday, or maybe a Thursday--Allnutt called again and said, "You know, I promised not to put you through this again, but I thought, what the hell, I'll give you one more try. The guy we hired to replace the guy I told you about just sent in a telegram. He got a big raise in pay and he's going to stay where he is. "Would you consider it?" I said, "I don't know." You caught me at the right time, or else I've had time to think about it. Anyone who turns down the job of being head of public affairs for NASA has to be nuts, especially when they're working for Amtrak and they're having six derailments a week. I said, "Yes, I'll come over."

    I went over and I walked into a situation which was almost the mirror image of the Houston situation. The poor guy--you can find his name if you want to but I'm not going to say it. Let's just say that he was one of the series of public affairs officers who NASA had, and he was in a world of his own. He was the wrong person for the job. He wasn't able to communicate very well with the NASA senior staff, and he didn't communicate very well with the NASA Public Affairs Office. The result was that he became thoroughly ineffective. Little by little the situation grew to the point where Public Affairs was essentially ineffective. When I came in, I said, "The first job I've got is to get you guys ticking in public affairs again as a resource, not as a problem. We began to work very hard to do that. (SIDE A ENDS)


DUFF: We wanted to be seen by the administrator, the deputy administrator and the associate administrator as part of the team, not as a bunch of malcontents who were down there looking for ways to cause trouble. If you're not talking to your public affairs staff and they're frustrated so they're not talking to you, soon you have a situation like the one in Houston. Even your field centers seem to be out of control and are fouling up all over the place. After all, you can't tell whose fault it is. Is it because you didn't communicate what you wanted, or because they didn't tell you what they wanted to do? When the communications--collapse someone will say, "How in the world can you get in a situation like that?" I don't know how you do it. Maybe the administrator or the PO doesn't like the looks of the guy, doesn't like the tie he wears or something like that, but it stops. Somehow the guy doesn't express himself or is too abrasive.

    Whatever happened, the situation in NASA at that point was that the public affairs officer had stopped talking to the senior staff. The senior staff stopped talking to him. The public affairs floated off. It was a free agent. It was constantly frustrating the senior staff. They kept answering queries from the media and so forth.

    Even worse was the fact that the shuttle was very visible at this time and the stories were flying.I got in there and said,

"This is ridiculous. When you get into a something like that, you always get to the point where they hang a couple of adjectives in front of you and you see those adjectives every time you see your name. They call a bank robber "former convict Joe Blow"--no matter what you do, they put that in. The shuttle was two years behind schedule and twenty-five billion over budget, and they never used the word shuttle without those words. People were writing stories that were laughable. One reporter said the shuttle was the Spruce Goose of the Space Era.

    When I came in, I did the same thing I had done in all of my jobs. There were no secrets, no magic formula, I just opened up the agency. I said, "You're going to see more newsmen in the next six weeks than you've seen in the last two years." Your problem is that you're not available to them. I don't know whose fault it is, yours or your Public Relation's Officers, but you've got a story to tell, and we're going to make you so available the media is going to be tired of talking to you."

    We started a series of once a week press briefings. This was the same technique I used at HEW and at Amtrak. Every week we had a NASA expert. We had a NASA expert on the shuttle brakes. We had a NASA expert on the tiles. No one wanted to hear about brakes or tiles, so we also got someone to talk about astronauts. We took the whole program and cut it up into chapters, and every week wedid a press availability. At the first one, I was in the room with all the different people, at the press conference--

    One way to do it is to have the policy people come in every third week, and you can't ask the guy who's worrying about the brakes what the the tile people are doing. We recorded each of the sessions and then printed the transcriptions and made them available in chapters. We began calling that the Shuttle Press Manual, each one being a chapter, so that we were doing two things. We were trying to get the media to get over the idea that we were afraid of them, and that we were afraid of the program. You can see how complex it was, letting them see the exposed program--who was in there, who was doing some of these things.

    One of the guys who was absolutely superb was Abrahamson. He was very good at this sort of thing. He loved it. If you asked him a question and he gave you a book. The tougher the questions, the more he liked it because he was enamored with the problem. We had Bob Frosh up there, and we scattered the pain around so that everyone got a touch of it. That way you don't get a manager sitting off some place who's immune and who criticizes rather than shares in the process. It's very easy to criticize someone else's press conference, but you find out what it's like when you do it yourself. You divide the subject up, even in the minds of the press and of the managers. They realize that, yes, they have a problem with tiles and the tile problem is real and it's an engineering problem and we're working on it, but over here we have a real breakthrough in the engines. You make them do their homework. You make them understand that the shuttle is not just one thing. It's a complex thing.

MAUER: I think I understand what you're saying. By giving them this flow of information, they're not just writing one off the other. You were talking about how when they mentioned the space shuttle, there was a pat phrase that went along with it. But once this flow of information started coming in, they could start seeing some of the total picture.

DUFF: Yes, it tends to happen. It tends to be seen as a minor miracle by your bosses. All of a sudden you're presenting popular stories. It's an eductional process. It takes information and study to write a good story about something as complex as a brand new space transportation system.

MAUER: But some people still remained critical.

DUFF: Yes, but if your bosses trust you and they see you doing something, there's an educational process going on in both directions. The press is getting to know us better, and getting ready to cover the story.

    We all knew the shuttle was going to fly, so we were beginning to bring the press up to the time when they were capable of writinga story with more depth than the easy one that they'd been writing up to now. It's easy to write a story which says the shuttle is twenty billion dollars over budget and two years behind schedule. You can write that out of the clippings. But we were providing the availability of our people, and we were running a systematic review of the shuttle program that may have been done three or four years ago but hadn't been done recently. We were putting the press together with these nameless, faceless managers that they didn't know, and making them realize that they (the managers) were pretty sharp cookies. Some of them were even interesting and witty.

    We were also beginning the process of putting the NASA managers together with the media so that the media weren't a mob of faceless, snarling enemies, but individual people.One day the managers began to call on the reporters by name. After they'd seen a story, they said, "Yes, Jim, you had a question," or "Mary, you had a question," and they began to feel more comfortable. That process has to occur in these places, because the key managers have to begin to feel good and to work well with the press. You have either no access to the press, in which case you get nothing but a lot of stories that don't seem to make any sense, or one or two guys are doing all the press contacts, and here are all these guys who are exempt and haven't been blooded in this process. It worked.

    Luckily it didn't have to work very long, because within twelve months we were flying. One of the messages I had for the NASA people was: hang in there. The minute you fly, most of this stuff (the negative coverage) is going to go away. The minute you fly, a lot of this flack will disappear. It will be taken care of, so hang in there. In the meantime, let's use this time to educate these people, so that when you do fly, you've got a knowledgeable press corps. The Apollo press corps was very knowledgeable. The Apollo press corps knew a lot about the program. And the shuttle press corps which was a new group in many cases--some old retreads but a lot of new people--really knew very little about it. NASA wasn't giving them the kind of schooling that they needed.

MAUER: What about the people who remained critical?

DUFF: The media people?

MAUER: Yes. Did the type of criticism change in your opinion?

DUFF: The first thing that happens is that if you're holding press briefings in which you get twenty-five or thirty newsmen, you're getting a lot more stories. Then your critical story, instead of being the dominant story, becomes one of many stories. What you try to do is dilute the mix so that you're not hanging yourself on one. If you get a situation like what easily happens where you don't talk to any reporters and then someone gets an interview or just writes something, that story stands alone and seems to be much more important than it really is. That's a greatadvantage of a well orchestrated press operation which, I always used to say, keeps positive pressure in the pipes. Keep the garbage flowing out, because it's just like a plumbing system. If it isn't flowing out, it's flowing in.

    Another thing is, and I'm not cynical about this, but give everyone lots of detail. Part of that is for the reporters who really want the detail. Part of it is for the lazy reporter who won't go and get it himself. But be active. Be available. Be ahead of them. Have more access than they want, rather than less access.

MAUER: Do you have a sense of whether the criticism (of NASA) became improved? Was there a better quality? Have you any sense about that at all?

DUFF: Yes. I'm not objective, I must say. My assessment of it was that two things began to happen immediately. One of them was that we got more stories and they were more broad-ranging. From a period in which we had a few stories, all of them critical, we moved to a situation where we had a lot of stories, some of them critical, some of them positive, and some of them just straight reporting. That's what you really want, a little bit of both. And as you move forward, they can't keep writing the critical stories over and over again. After all, if you've said them once, you can't keep saying it.

    Certain things that were going to happen anyway did happen. A serious problem with the engines got solved. By the time it got solved, we had established this briefing process, so that when it was solved, not only did we have a coherent, established press corps, but a shuttle press corps had begun to evolve. If you've invested four or five or ten Thursday mornings, you begin to think of yourself as a shuttle expert. Then, when you think of yourself as an expert, you tend to think of yourself as being able to weigh the pluses and the minuses. And when a guy like Abrahamson gets up and says, "We've solved the shuttle engine problem. I'll show you in three hours how we did it," and he walks you through the schematics until you're eyes blur and he tells you every single thing that happened, you walk out of this and it takes a pretty strong personality to say, "That's a lot of hogwash, I don't think they solved the shuttle engine problem." In fact, we had solved the shuttle engine problem.

    I remember one great breakthrough. They had put a team to work on the tiles, and Bob Gilruth was on that team. He had left NASA. He got a hold of me in Houston. I got on the phone, and he said, "We finally solved this tile problem. We have gone from red to green on the tile problem." He said, "In engineering that doesn't happen very often. Usually, when you've got a real tough problem, you get partial solutions, you get little solutions, or you decide to try another route altogether." He said, "We found that by coating the upper surface of the tile, essentially bypainting some kind of epoxy on the tile, the key tiles become densified", or some such thing. He said, "I was convinced we muffed it. Now, you've got to get that word out." I picked up the phone and called (Robert Gilruth). I said, "Dr. Gilruth we have to have someone from your commission available to us as fast as we can get them, to tell people that that's what happened."

    Part of that process, right through the shuttle program--I wasn't there when the Challenger accident occurred, but we could literally, at one point--this is not me, this is the NASA public affairs organization and the NASA public affairs system. It got to the point--we had a flight where we landed two days early. We had an APU crapout. We had two or three experiments fail completely, and Abrahamson could stand out there at Edwards Air Force Base and say, "We count this mission to be ninety-nine percent successful." And I thought, how does he come up with that mathematics? I could tick off half a dozen things that just didn't work. One of the astronauts got motion sickness and was totally out of commission for twenty-four hours. We had a press corps at that time--it wasn't that we had won them over to the point where they weren't thinking, but they had become very close to the program.

    That sort of thing may or may not last, I don't want to brag about it because it was partly the real skill of Abrahamson and his clear integrity, which was coming through, but that was, in my view, a high point of the program. It was a direct result of a lot of hard work and a lot of exposure of NASA people to a lot of just plain old briefings and press conferences.

    We always tried to make a distinction between a briefing and a press conference. A briefing is when you give people information about something that has been there all the time; it's their choice to come in and get it. A press conference is when you announce something different that has happened--for example, you cancelled or changed something--

MAUER: --or solved the tile problem.

DUFF: Yes, that would be a press conference. A briefing would be a situation where you never had a tile problem and you just wanted to tell them what the tiles are. A press conference would be one where you get someone with Gilruth's reputation--of course it wasn't just Gilruth, it was a team of seven or eight or nine people who'd worked for NASA, and some of them had been ex-NASA--suddenly saying, "We have literally solved the tile problem." You don't get everyone to believe you. Some will say, "NASA claimed to solve the problem." But at least they were out there getting a hearing.

MAUER: Okay. You weren't on board when Challenger went down. The criticism within the press corps itself about how the press group covers NASA developed after Challenger. The focus on some of this criticism was that the people who had been covering NASA for some time weren't the ones who wrote the story about what the problemswere. It was people on the outside. The people who were close had developed relationships. They were good about being able to get information about the flow of things, yet they were not in a position to dig deep and find out the problems underneath.

DUFF: Yes. That is a very real concern on the part of newspaper editors, that a reporter will become captured by the subject, and will become unable to be really nasty, to really go for the jugular. When that happens, they often bring in someone from the outside, and that person says, "I don't know anything about what you did yesterday. All I know is that you really screwed up today," and has no qualms because of friendship. The process that I described to you is one that makes friends. People get to know each other. I can think of a couple of reporters who had a bad time because editors lost faith in their ability after those stories. That's a real concern inside journalism, and it happens on the police beat too, you know.

MAUER: But when public affairs is concerned in that sort of situation--.

DUFF: In public affairs, to some extent, you try to make that happen. There's no problem until you get something on the level of the Challenger accident. That's not something you would worry about if things were going along well. The reporter would not be put to the test because you don't have a disaster, and you wouldn't be put to the test because you don't have a disaster.

MAUER: As a public affairs officer, did you ever find yourself in a situation where you were aware that there was a real problem and--? Clearly the press should have been pressing NASA in some ways. Challenger went down because of problems that had been ongoing for quite some time. There's at least a potential tension here.

DUFF: Yes. Well, Challenger and the fire, let's take those two together. Those were the two great man killing incidents, the ones that caused fatalities. They weren't that different when you look at them. I wasn't there for the Challenger, but I was aware of it, but they were both very traumatic. It's one thing to have a problem, and it's one thing to have a very serious problems. It's another thing to have a catastrophe. The difference between a human failure, even a serious human failure, and something like Three Mile Island or the Challenger--

    No one should ever be so naive as to think they can insulate themselves against catastrophe. Catastrophe is traumatic. If you have the best public affairs operation that's ever been put together, you still will have to pay for a catastrophe if it happens, because you have made an unforgivable mistake. There is no excuse for that. It's absolutely not forgivable. Therefore, there will be blood let, there will be a certain amount of pain. There will be a certain amount of surgery. There is no disputingthe fact that something was terribly, terribly wrong. You may say, "Was there some clue that someone saw?" It's like the question: did they know about Pearl Harbor? I don't know. I wasn't there. There were probably all sorts of flags waving, little flags inside NASA about the use of pure oxygen. When you go back afterward, you find them all. Remember that most public affairs officers are not technical. They tend to be, to some extent, captive of the technocracy like everyone else. The flags start waving usually not in the public affairs office, but in the program offices. If they aren't caught--it would be unusual if they were.

    We use a beep system in NASA. I don't remember when that was established, but it (a problem) might get picked up in that area if you had someone who was very concerned in one of the offices and talked to someone who was interested in what happened. We assigned a public affairs officer to each major (program) area, and they worked like an internal newspaper, to bring things forward so that we know enough about the program that we could serve our clients well. If something exciting is going on in the aeronautics area, we know about it, so that we can go to the aeronautics area and say, "We think you've got something good here. Why don't we put together a press briefing."

    The public affairs office would be apt to do something political in nature for example, the incident that I mentioned to you where I was arguing with Webb that he could not go down to Mississippi and read that speech. I would never have had the technical background to start running around saying we shouldn't go with pure oxygen, because I figureed others knew more about that than I did. But what I did know was that Webb shouldn't go down to Mississippi and make a speech.

MAUER: Are you aware of any time in NASA where a reporter was talking with someone within the organization and finding out about a problem? That's more the category that didn't happen. The break came only after Challenger was destroyed.

DUFF: It used to happen, but one of our arguments was that if the system's working, it doesn't happen. We didn't catch Challenger--how do I say this? I presume we didn't catch Challenger because the system wasn't catching Challenger. If a problem is well known within the agency and is being discussed, the public affairs office, if it's working, if it has the trust of the--we'd be in there telling them that they had to level on this thing. As I say, it's not because we're Boy Scouts. It's because we say, "For God's sake don't sit on this thing. You want to be the source. Don't wait and let some guy leak it in the parking lot."

    At Amtrak, the minute we had a problem with a train, they called the public affairs officer, they called the safety officer, and they called the lawyer. They had a list and they called them. The public affairs officer had the right to announce that there was a derailment that killed five people. I had the right to announceit without checking with anyone, I was supposed to be the source of that information. You get the nice duty of calling AP (Associated Press) and saying, "This is Amtrak. We just had a derailment." In Mississippi, we had forty people in the hospital. We had five cars derailed. We have a fire. The guy (at AP) said, "Who's calling?" I said, "This is Brian Duff. I'm the public affairs officer for Amtrak, and I'm telling you." He said, "Jeez!" But as I say, that's not being a Boy Scout. That's being determined that you're going to be the source of that story, because if you aren't the source, someone else will be and you will have no control.

    If you're serious public relations, you have to understand that you have to announce the bad news. You don't even have to announce the good news. If you want to be tough about it, you can let the good news go. But you have to announce the bad news, because you have to get them used to thinking that you are the place to go if they've heard something. If you do that, even if someone does give someone a scoop in a parking lot, you tend to say, "I'd better call public affairs and see if this is straight."

MAUER: It's a credibility factor.

DUFF: Yes. I think we had that credibility, right up to the disaster. You may say, "What happened?" I would say that there's no insulation good enough to protect you against something like that. You just made an institutional failure of such a degree that you just have to accept it. You have to accept that you were wrong, and it isn't a case of explaining it. The most glib spokesman in the world cannot talk away what happened, because it was absolutely wrong.

MAUER: I think we've reached a good point to end this. I know you need to be going. Thank you very much for talking with me.

Duff 2 || Duff 4

Rev. 08/13/96

©1996 National Air and Space Museum