On the train back home after TWTRCON, I reflected on all I’d seen and heard from the variety of speakers and attendees. As informative and entertaining as the day was, I kept coming back to one incident that occurred about midway through the day.
During the Customer Service is the New Marketing panel discussion, the Twitter feeds displayed on the large monitors flanking the stage began to show tweets like this one:
sc83x via Twitter 6 seconds ago
@NASA STOP TORTURING ANIMALS! http://ht.ly/1YkVy RT 4 monkeys! #TWTRCON
I noticed when the woman behind me burst out laughing. Ripples of laughter spread across the conference room as we watched the Twitter stream speed up as more posts like this one appeared with the #TWTRCON hashtag. The panelists were at first baffled by the laughter; customer service, after all, is serious business. Then they too noticed the anti-NASA tweets.
Stephanie Schierholz, NASA’s representative on the panel, remained silent at first. I know, I too wondered what NASA has to do with customer service – so I Googled it. NASA has Public Liason Officers who I assume provide customer service to the people who pay for their program, namely tax paying Americans like you and me. This seems like public relations rather than customer service to me, and her official title at NASA is “Public Affairs Spcialist”, but I decided to cede the small difference to the NASA representative. If she says she’s in customer service, that’s her choice.
That was before her reaction to the hijacking of the #TWTRCON hashtag.
Ms. Schierholtz tried to ignore the response from the panel and the audience until the moderator suggested that the conference organizers stop the feed for a moment. At that point, Ms. Schierholtz remarked that “those PETA people” were always disrupting NASA speakers because “maybe we’re experimenting on monkeys” followed by a shrug and an eyeroll. Someone on the panel expressed the opinion that disrupting a hashtag an innovative way to protest …
Then awkward silence.
Wasn’t this panel called Customer Service is the New Marketing? Had the NASA representative just missed a perfect public relations (customer service) opportunity? Did she not notice that, at lunch, the option of choice among conference attendees was “vegetarian”? Could she not infer from the initial laughter that her audience wasn’t familiar with the controversy or hear them quickly searching for information about the tweets on their laptops?
Most people reading this post know I’m vegan, but if you don’t know how Twitter made me swear off animal products, you can read my post about it here. So naturally I googled “NASA monkeys” and discovered this article with the following:
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), based in Washington, D.C., sent an appeal Thursday to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, urging that the radiobiology study, intended to test the effects of radiation encountered in long-range spaceflight, be suspended….
In Bergman’s study, according to Discovery News, 18 to 28 squirrel monkeys would be subjected to radiation and periodically tested to gauge how exposure affects performance in a variety of learned tasks. Stellar and galactic radiation would bombard astronauts on missions to Mars, but the health effects of such a trip are not well known.
The PCRM sure sounds reputable – not that PETA doesn’t but let’s face it, they have some image issues. Why didn’t Ms. Schierholtz take the opportunity to present NASA’s reasons for this testing? While I certainly don’t support that decision, I would politely listen to a reasonable explanation if only to be aware of all the facts before confirming my initial response.
Disparaging PETA then rolling her eyes while sitting on a customer service panel was not the wise response. Not only did it alienate her audience, it affirmed PETA’s hijacking of a hashtag as an effective form of protest. Taking over that Twitter stream harmed no one, informed audience members, and confirmed that good customer service is the new new marketing!