Small steps would turn around Mars One's public relations problems

Making the giant leap to settlements on Mars requires taking small steps. Image Credit: Mars One

Mars One is not a scam, but it only has itself to blame for the relentless criticism it receives. It is so focused on its ultimate goal that it fails to execute the basic blocking and tackling of public relations. The latest kerfuffle emerged from Mars100 candidate Dr. Joseph Roche’s conversation with journalist Elmo Keep. But this is just the latest in a series of PR mis-steps that erode Mars One’s credibility among the very communities it needs to reach the red planet.

[For those unfamiliar with Rochegate, I’ve reviewed the details at the end of my commentary]

Mars One needs support from the scientific community. They will be Mars One’s ultimate customers and will influence government funding for settler-supported research on Mars. Yet few scientists outside of Mars One support it publicly. Bas Lansdorp responds to technical questions with vague reassurances and a lack of candor at odds with the scientific community’s culture of open debate. Even worse Mars One’s leadership team lashes out at well-intentioned scientists who identify weaknesses in its settlement plans. At a time of constraints in science budgets around the world, the scientific community takes a dim view of organizations whose tactics could undermine support for scientists and their research.

Mars One also needs support from the general public. They are the ones whose attention lies at the heart of Mars One’s business model. Yet its engagement with the public - especially through the media - can only be described as weak. Mars One’s initial press release locked “reality TV” firmly in the media’s mind. Now Mars One’s leaders sound defensive every time they try to convince the media to call it a “documentary”. Accusations continue to fly that Mars One fudged the numbers of applicants: was it 200,000 or was it 80,000 or was it 2,782? Rather than opening the books and accepting the results, Mars One only grants access to journalists willing to give up editorial control over their work. The fastest, most effective response to the latest kerfuffle caused by Dr. Roche’s high-profile withdrawal didn’t even come from the Mars One leadership. The Mars100 candidates took it upon themselves to post responses to Elmo Keep’s article and to court interviews with the media.

Mars One has earned almost $800,000 in donations and merchandise sales. It wouldn’t find itself in its current situation if it had used that money to fund effective public engagement programs. Consider these programs the public can join today:

Inexpensive programs like these - quickly and effectively executed - would build Mars One’s credibility and goodwill within the scientific community. Fostering STEM education and public engagement in science would soften Mars One's treatment in the media. It would make doubts about Mars One’s long-term ambitions sound churlish in the face of happy kids flying their own space experiments. The question is whether Mars One’s leadership can take the small steps needed to make giant leaps.

The following recaps the kerfuffle that Joseph Roche’s withdrawal from Mars One triggered. Most media reports are thinly paraphrased versions of a few original articles. I limited my own paraphrasing ;-) and linked to the reports that actually added to the debate so you can read the articles yourself. 

On Monday Elmo Keep published her latest Medium article “Mars One Finalist Explains Exactly How It‘s Ripping Off Supporters”. In it she outlines why Irish astrophysicist and Mars One candidate Dr. Joseph Roche dropped out of the project. Roche told Keep that the screening process isn’t rigorous enough to be taken seriously and that he had reservations about the way candidates were asked to contribute financially to the project. He withdrew because he felt that, when Mars One “inevitably fails”, people would lose faith in Nasa and scientists in general. Keep expanded on Roche’s comments to portray Mars One as a “scheme” that has gone unchallenged by the media.

The next day - after hundreds of copycat articles swept the interwebs - New Scientist published “Another hiccup for Mars One’s mission to the Red Planet”. Technology editor Niall Firth spoke with Mars One Director of Communications Suzanne Flinkenflögel who refuted Keep’s article and said that Roche's accusations were false. 

The Mars One candidates themselves defended the project from what they perceived as a biased hit piece. Oscar Mathews collected feedback from the Mars100 Facebook group and published a point-by-point response on Medium. Mathews concluded the piece with a personal response about the nature of Mars One and his motives for joining. Gunnar Prehl eloquently explained the inspirational motives driving his participation in the project and Ryan MacDonald posted his own response to his YouTube channel:

Mars100 candidates also addressed the media directly. Norwegian candidate Robin Ingebretsen addressed the accusations on TV2 and suggested that Keep has her own agenda. Ethan Dederick and Josh Richards defended Mars One in conversations with the International Business Times.

By Wednesday, the reaction and counter reaction prompted Dr. Roche to write his own explanation on the Guardian’s op-ed site. In his own words he explained that the lack of rigor in the selection process as well as Mars One’s refusal to engage with the scientific community compelled him to leave the project. 

On Thursday, Mars One posted a YouTube response from its CEO Bas Lansdorp and released a transcript of his remarks. Lansdorp addressed the points Roche raised and cast Keep as a biased journalist “more interested in writing a sensational article about Mars One than in the truth”. He goes on to address the broader concerns about the project, in the process announcing that Mars One’s schedule would be delayed by two years.