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Let’s Talk About Space...and Storytelling
Featuring an interview with Tahira Allen, Instagram lead for @NASA
When I emailed Tahira Allen about scheduling the interview for today’s newsletter, she responded: “To be completely transparent I am drowning in work prepping for our Mars landing in February, so I would be in a much better mindset to give this interview my full attention in March.”
Which was funny because I too, as part of my job, was preparing for a rover to land on a planet 140 million miles away so it can seek signs of ancient life.
What I love so much about social media is how social managers can all speak the common language of storytelling, engagement, content creation—and yet utilize that language across so many different fields. I first met Tahira through a fun social media braintrust led by Josh Raab, Director of Instagram at National Geographic. He put together a group of people from very different fields (Bon Appéit, NASA, Nike, and Nat Geo) to chat about best practices, weird ideas, and new features. I think hearing from social media managers from a completely different field as the one you work in can bring some of the best ideas.
When Tahira and I got on our call for the interview post-Mars landing Tahira said, “I actually worked the spacewalk this morning. So I've been up since 5:00 AM.” Casual. I am so thrilled that Tahira found time between the Mars landing and the space walk (I found time between hanging out with my dogs and watching “Below Deck”) to chat about social and specifically how she utilizes storytelling at NASA. You don’t have to work in space or care about Pluto to enjoy this interview. I promise that hearing about how Tahira thinks about telling stories on social media will inspire you, no matter the field you work in.
Rachel Karten: Hi Tahira! Thank you so much for chatting with me. First, can you tell me a little bit about your current role and any previous social roles you’ve had?
Tahira Allen: I am actually a NASA contractor. So I am a communication strategist with MORI Associates and contracted to NASA. I love to hit on that point because so many people that I meet are like, how did you get a job at NASA? And if you're just looking on USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment site, there's not that many roles out there, but NASA has so many contractors. Looking on sites like MORI Associates and other places that provide services to federal agencies is a really great way to get a foot in the door.
To back up though, I graduated college in 2018 so I don't have that big of a background anywhere. I went to school in Georgia to study politics, so I was never in “space”. And then after graduating I started working at Voice of America, which is an international news organization. And I did a little bit of social for their news and whatnot—but it wasn’t my focus. So when I first came to NASA, it was an entry level, social media specialist, foot in the door kind of role.
Then it really blossomed from there. Now I’m a communication strategist—I'm writing daily posts with my social team, taking on “lead” roles for big events (like the Crew-1 launch), and going on live broadcasts.
RK: And is there a platform that you focus on specifically in your role?
TA: The team I’m on writes posts for every platform—it’s sort of a Here's what we need today, claim what you want to write situation. But I am our team’s Instagram and Tumblr expert, coordinating content, facilitating partnerships, and sharing best practices across those platforms. In 2019, my boss was like, Hey, everyone pick an aspect of our social and show us how we could do better. That really blossomed into my big NASA 2020 Instagram strategy presentation. From there, I kind of fell into this role as the Instagram lead. Many things that you see NASA doing on Instagram today, came from that presentation.
For example, you'll notice that every post starts with a catchy one-liner above the “read more” fold. So it's usually something that's punchy or relates back to a trending meme. That’s something I wanted to try when I first started; it was highly successful, and we've been able to roll with it ever since.
Another big aspect of my 2020 Instagram strategy was that I really called it the year of community building. You'll notice on @NASA that after every post, someone on the team will stay in the comments for 15 minutes, either making jokes with our followers or responding to questions. It’s important (and rare) to be conversational as a big brand.
RK: That’s great. I love that idea of someone staying in the comments for 15 minutes after a post goes up. What initially drew you to NASA in the first place?
TA: Oh, I've always just been a huge space fan. I may not have studied space, but I basically live my life in a science fiction world through movies and books. After I moved to D.C., I saw this position for NASA and I was like, okay, I at least have to shoot my shot.
After applying, I called and emailed everybody and anybody that worked there just to let them know that I was interested in joining their team one day. By the time I went in for that interview, the person interviewing me was like, “Oh, *you're* Tahira”—I was like, “Did you get my cookies?”
RK: Walk me through what a typical day looks like for you…
Every day is different, which is the most exciting part about this job. There are just so many things always going on. For example, on a Monday you could wake up at 4 a.m. and cover a spacewalk on social. (Ed note: Any time an astronaut gets out of a vehicle while in space, it is called a spacewalk.) Then on Tuesday you’re interviewing someone for a series called Faces of NASA. And then you’re hopping in a meeting with a big brand or partner and brainstorming a strategy for an upcoming event. Then, maybe, you’re working with NASA TV to craft social messaging around a stream. Then you’re taking clips from a live press briefing and posting them on Twitter. Then you might end the day by recording yourself for NASA TV.
Also I don't think a lot of people realize that my team and I work on all the flagship NASA accounts. So that's the main NASA accounts that most people follow (@nasa), but NASA has over 600 social media accounts (including accounts for astronauts, telescopes, missions, etc). And so our job is to know what is going on at all times.
RK: Can you talk a little bit about how important storytelling is to you? In your personal Instagram bio you refer to yourself as a “storyteller” at NASA so I’m curious to hear your philosophy around that.
In my opinion, storytelling is something you have to think about when working in social and communications. If you look at everything else in the world that people ingest, digest, whatever—movies, songs, true crime podcasts—it all has a story arc.
We're always trying to tell the bigger picture here. Nothing at NASA happens overnight, and what is truly incredible about these missions is the people behind them that have been working on this for so long. There are the characters, there is the journey that's happening, there might be a challenge, then there’s a climax, and then the story continues and ends.
I see my role as a communication strategist as really being an avenue to uplift voices. I'm not writing my own stories, you know, like I'm just uplifting other people's voices and the things that they've been going through. I then use my skills to think about how I can tell their story in the most engaging light—I’m always asking myself What is the why?.
RK: I think that’s such a good point. I feel like we have to talk about Mars and the recent landing. I’m wondering if you can relate the use of storytelling back to that?
I was not the social lead for that mission, so I can’t take credit for all the greatness that came out of that. But I mean, it still all relates back to storytelling. There are people that have been working on this landing day and night for over 6 years.
I think you can easily see the storytelling aspects that my colleagues pulled out in the landing. First, this is happening during COVID, so you have the challenge of teams needing to figure out how to run a Mars mission from their homes. Social teams and TV teams also worked together to create stories around team members talking about their role behind the spacecraft. This is all part of the lead up strategy on social, with other behind-the-scenes content sprinkled in. Still, we always lean into the human aspect of it and show the arc of the journey to get to landing day.
On landing day, we've strategically already highlighted some of these key players on social, which makes viewers way more invested. So now for landing, you’re seeing those same people that you saw in the lead up videos. You know, adrenaline has been built so that people are on the edge of their seats. You’re rooting for these people (or “characters” in the story arc) during probably one of the most stressful periods of their life.
I think the more direct access and the more behind the scenes content we can do at NASA, the better. When you're talking about space and sending satellites millions of light years away, that's sometimes a little hard to wrap your head around. Humanizing it and showing the people behind it all helps.
RK: I have chills. Can you talk about a post or campaign that you’re particularly proud of?
I would definitely say being the social lead for the Crew-1 mission, which was the first crewed mission that NASA and SpaceX operated as part of the Commercial Crew Program. I was a co-leader with my colleague and it was my first time ever leading a level one mission. (ed note. Missions are ranked by levels of importance, with level one being the highest priority.)
And what does working a level one mission look like? Tired eyes. That is exactly what that looks like. It starts with a lot of planning. For this mission in particular, you’re having meetings with Japan, and SpaceX, internal people—it’s a lot of work.
I was proud to be able to have pulled off all of these mission moving pieces. And at the same time I was a host on the live broadcast, which has over 2 million views on YouTube! So on top of the social aspect, I had five hours of rehearsals every week during the two months leading up to the broadcast.
I was proud of the sheer amount of work I was able to accomplish, but also getting to see the public’s emotional reactions to this successful mission. 2020 was not a happy year—so to be able to add some goodness to it means the world to me. I still get emotional every time I think about it. To be entrusted to be able to help share the NASA team’s and crew’s stories, to uplift their voices, and show that you don’t need to be a science whiz to love spaceflight… Yeah, it means the world.
RK: I think that’s such a good point. So much of social is coming up with the best way to uplift others. And that’s really important work! I think you touched on this a bit, but space is such a broad and complex topic—how do you make it digestible to the public? Specifically to your 64.4M followers (!) on Instagram?
So every post that we write is typically coming from a web feature or some other type of research that has been published. And it used to take me like...two hours to write a post because I’m reading the actual science that is being discussed, you know? And then trying to think about why someone would care about this, especially someone who is not a huge space nerd or an avid NASA follower. So I’m always looking for that hook or why to lead with.
It also helps that our social team is the perfect snapshot of the audience we're trying to reach. None of us have a STEM degree, to my knowledge. We are a very international team—a lot of people speak multiple languages. Our age range is across the board. And so sometimes we’ll send a post to each other and be like, Hey, are y'all vibing with this?
RK: Finally, I have to ask, do you want to go to space one day?
100%. Put me in coach. I am ready! Like, oh my goodness. The amount of dreams I've had where NASA needed a communications person to go up and I'm at the house on the beach, you know, where all the astronauts are waiting together—and it's me just completely ready.
I spend so much time thinking about space and engulfing myself in space—to get that opportunity to actually see it… wow. The astronauts talk a lot about the overview effect and how much it changes your perspective. Just seeing Earth from space.
If anybody's reading this and wants to send me to space, you know, I feel like you could really use a communication strategist up there…
ON ANOTHER NOTE, A FAVOR
Want to contribute to an upcoming newsletter? If you work in social media as your profession, I would love it if you could fill out this survey about ways you check out, set boundaries, and log off! My eyesight has personally plummeted ever since I started working in social, so really anything that doesn’t involve me staring at a screen feels like checking out. But I want to hear what you do! Thanks and really appreciate it!