Last month’s “Government Week” programming offered by UMUC’s Office of Career Services provided students and alumni an opportunity to understand more about the hiring process within city, state and federal government agencies. To provide an additional insight into jobs in the federal government, UMUC alumna Michelle Jones ’06 recently answered questions about career trends within the NASA.
Jones currently serves as the deputy chief of the Office of Communications at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In her position, she is accountable, with the chief, for the leadership and management of a staff of over 60 people in the planning and implementation of a comprehensive communications and public engagement program for Goddard and the agency. This includes strategic communications through the media, multimedia, social media, the web and print; Goddard’s home page (www.nasa.gov/goddard) and Inside Goddard (internal homepage); public engagement events, programs and activities; Goddard Visitor Center management and operations; internal communications; and partnerships with relevant external organizations. The Office of Communications’ work is vital to NASA’s role in inspiring, engaging and educating students, educators and the public. Jones has been a part of Goddard since September 1991, starting as a student aid during her senior year of high school. She joined the Office of Communications in 1994. Jones has a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of Maryland University College.
Q. Over the span of your communications career, what are some factors changing the industry today? How do these changes impact communications at the federal level?
A. The biggest game changer over the years has been the use of and reliance on social media. In the past, traditional media – such as press releases – were the standard for communicating our agency’s work. We still produce press releases, but social media has proven to be an effective tool for widening our ability to communicate, engage and raise awareness about NASA, especially among younger social media-savvy individuals whom we see as our future leaders in space exploration. At the federal level, we are investing more resources in social media and bringing in people who can help lead us in this continually changing landscape. As we all know, change is often difficult, so getting colleagues to understand the power and benefit of social media can be challenging, but by ensuring that we are all well-versed we can be ready for any changes that come our way.
By the same token, social media and other technologies are transforming how our audiences consume information, forcing us to adapt and adjust to how we deliver that information. No longer are newspapers, magazines and televisions stations the sole outlets for conveying our success. The influx of niche websites, digital platforms and smartphone apps has led us to become more versatile. We now reach a good portion of our audience through podcasts, YouTube videos, Facebook Live events and other digital means.
In a certain way, these changes came at just the right time. For several decades, the Space Shuttle Program was the core of NASA, more so in the eyes of the public. The end of the program put a renewed emphasis on other projects, and it has been our job to make the public and scientific community aware of their existence. The number of media outlets that we have at our disposal has allowed us to achieve a greater distribution of information on behalf of the many missions NASA is undertaking.
Q. What are the differences and similarities in communications strategies in both the federal government and corporate environments?
A. Although I’ve never worked in a corporate environment, I would venture to say there are a good number of similarities and differences. At Goddard, we carefully identify communications priorities and develop messaging platforms that align with the mission, goals and objectives of NASA as a whole. These priorities and platforms become the foundation for everything we do. Such a practice is common in corporate settings, whether it be an in-house communications office or a communications agency with corporate clients.
Something that is unique to Goddard and other NASA centers, however, is the level of autonomy we maintain as stand-alone enterprises. With each center exhibiting its own core competencies, it is often more efficient to allow the centers to take charge of communicating their own work, all the while adhering to the overarching agencywide communications priorities. Goddard is NASA’s leading center in Earth science, for example, so we are the first point of contact for the dissemination of information for such projects and missions. Because of the size of many federal agencies, delegating communications responsibilities to individual units is not uncommon, while smaller corporations may not find such an arrangement to be as productive.
In addition, internal engagement has heightened importance in federal agencies. At NASA, it is just as – if not more – important than external engagement. When employees have a solid understanding of NASA’s work and its mission, they become ambassadors for the agency within their own families and communities. This provides us even more opportunities to raise awareness about our work.
Because in the end, our success is determined by the awareness we generate for NASA. Unlike a corporation, our goal isn’t to add value to a bottom line or raise funds. We are here to show the public how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. By conveying a positive image for Goddard and the agency, we help secure the public’s backing for any future endeavors.
Q. What inspired you to pursue a career in communications at NASA? What education path did you pursue? How did you begin your career?
A. I actually started working at NASA during my senior year of high school. Some recruiters from Goddard came to my high school to tell us about a special program, the Cooperative Office Experience, that they offered. It piqued my interest for many different reasons, but the biggest selling point was that college expenses could potentially be paid for through this program. In the beginning of my college journey, my plan was to pursue a major in computer science. However, I quickly realized that my passion was more aligned with communications and engagement. Shortly after coming to this realization, I was fortunate enough to land in the Office of Public Affairs, currently the Office of Communications, and at that time I officially switched my major to communication studies. I’ve always been very strong in planning, coordinating, leading and writing, so being a part of communications was definitely a good fit.
Q. How have some of your career experiences shaped you into the communications professional you are today?
A. Being an employee in the communications field for more than 20 years, I have attained an organizational fluency both in terms of communications as it relates to NASA and the people I am proud to call my colleagues. All of my collective experiences have helped me build resilience and hone my skills not only as a communications practitioner, but also as a supervisor. Over time, through multiple positions, this has elevated me to a leader in the office and has redefined my own goals and benchmarks for success. While developing myself as a communications professional will always be a goal, my primary focus today is creating a space in which the communications professionals who work in my organization have the resources, time and guidance to do their jobs. As a supervisor, success is no longer defined solely through my own accomplishments, but also through the growth and development of those around me.
Q. What advice would you give a UMUC student looking to start a career within the federal government? How can they set themselves apart from the competition?
A. First, do as much research as possible. Research the field you are interested in to familiarize yourself with the competencies that are needed. It is important to remember that just about all federal agencies hire from all educational backgrounds. For example, you don’t need to major in science or engineering to work for NASA. We have communications professionals, attorneys, education specialists and other nontechnical personnel who work here.
USA Jobs is a great resource to search for federal job postings. I suggest going to a career coach to get assistance with your résumé and prepare for the interview. Once you have narrowed down your interests, reach out to someone within the agency to see if they can set up an informational interview to learn more about the position and the culture of the organization.
Q. What different types of positions makeup NASA Goddard’s communications department?
A. The positions within our organization cover several areas of concentration, including social media, internal communications, special events, website management, tours, animations, video production, event planning, science writing, and overall communications management for projects and upcoming missions.
Q. Any final thoughts or recommendations you want to share for UMUC students and alumni currently working or entering the communications industry and looking to start a career within the federal government?
A. Find your passion and let that be your guiding force. The opportunities are endless. You just have to be sure that whatever you are doing or pursuing is a good fit for you – something that will sustain and motivate you for years to come.
For more information on career opportunities and resources available to UMUC students and alumni from the Office of Career Services, click here.
Jennifer Tomasovic is the director of Communications for Career Services and Alumni Relations at University of Maryland University College. She has spent her 15 year career crafting communications strategies and messages using both marketing and public relations tactics enhancing the brand and reputation for both the clients and organizations she has represented.