To the Moon and Beyond

By Bruce Bobbins, Executive Vice President

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

I was only 10 years old when Neil Armstrong uttered those historic words upon taking the first steps ever made on the Moon. At the time — the date was July 21, 1969 — I really didn’t comprehend the magnitude of what was happening and how the world would be transformed by that single indelible moment.

Sure, I knew it was important — after all, my parents let my two brothers, my sister, and me stay up late to watch Armstrong, and then fellow-astronaut Buzz Aldrin, taking their iconic Moon walks. And I remember watching on our black-and-white TV as the Lunar Module touched down by the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility the previous afternoon. I wasn’t alone. Newscasts showed people lined up in front of electronics and appliance stores watching as the Eagle landed. In fact, when factoring in the number of TV sets worldwide in 1969 and today, more people across the globe watched the Moon landing and the first steps on the lunar plane than watched the recent World Cup.

But, as a boy growing up in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York, my thoughts were more concentrated on a different type of Moon shots — that of longballs being clubbed by Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones and Ed Charles of my beloved New York Mets. For the first time in the team’s previous seven years of dismal and often hilarious existence, they were actually playing winning baseball…and doing so just a few short miles down the road from our two-bedroom apartment. By the way, the Mets won the World Series that year — a fitting end to a banner 1969. Speaking of which, I also vaguely remember my older brother would also talk a little about some mega-concert that was going to take place a few weeks later in some place in upstate New York called “Woodstock.”

Over the past year or so, I have found myself thinking back to those iconic moments in history — both the First Walk on the Moon and the Woodstock music festival. In fact, I’ve been privileged to spend the last 12 months of my professional career working on projects related to both 50th anniversaries, as well as the 75th birthday of Smokey Bear, the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street, the 40th anniversaries of both the Rubik’s Cube and the Voyager mission, and several other milestone occasions. At DKC, I’ve become the “Anniversary Guy.”

For our client Heritage Auctions, I’ve been promoting the Neil Armstrong Family Collection. It’s nearly 3,000 artifacts and memorabilia that Armstrong took to the Moon and brought back, including, incredibly, pieces of the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flyer; Armstrong’s childhood Teddy Bear; one-of-a-kind pieces such as Armstrong’s copy of the original Apollo 11 flight plan; and even what may be the greatest memo ever written by a PR pro — a three-page missive outlining why Armstrong should not listen to the advice of others but, rather, use his own imagination when conceiving what he should say when he took that “one small step.” On this project, I’ve been honored to spend a considerable amount of time with Mark and Rick Armstrong, Neil’s sons, and hearing from them what it was like to witness their father make history. Mark told me, “Our dad was always flying for business, so we just thought of this as just another business trip.”

Talk about an interesting viewpoint. But they were both around the same age as I was in 1969 and, like me, they had interests that were more terrestrial that summer: playing ball, going swimming, riding bikes, hanging out with friends.

But their views gave me some perspective as I pondered what I’ve learned from working on this amazing project and many other anniversaries of historic significance.

First and foremost, such an auspicious occasion is more than a date on a calendar. People have a tendency to forget what happened on a specific day at a specific time, unless it’s something like their wedding, or the birth of their children.

As public relations professionals, we must go well beyond the “date” to tell the story of the anniversary. What was going on in the world at the time? What were the key earlier moments that led up to the big moment? A mere decade had passed since Russia launched its Sputnik spacecraft into orbit and only seven years since then-President John F. Kennedy, taking up the Space Race challenge, declared: “We choose to go to the Moon…and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

Those magnificent words lead to the second lesson. Achieving such a singular accomplishment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Neil Armstrong, together with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, didn’t just decide one day to climb aboard Apollo 11 and take off for the Moon. There were thousands of people who made it all possible — engineers, mathematicians, physicists, data processors, administrators, and so many others. Who are they? What do they remember from that moment years ago? How do they see the roles that they played in realizing the historic achievement? Tap into them, provide them with an opportunity to tell the stories behind the big story. They may have been “Hidden Figures” then, but a milestone anniversary is the opportune time to shine light on them.

Third, it is essential to give the historic anniversary current relevance. Why does it still matter? Has anything changed in the years since the event that has impacted its importance? How about now — what is going on today that should make people care about what happened in the past?

Think about July 1969; the U.S. and the world were in a state of disarray and divisiveness. Consider this a small sampling: The Vietnam conflict raged overseas, as did war protestors on the streets here at home. A month earlier, police raided a small nightclub called the Stonewall Inn in New York, and the concurrent riots there laid the foundation for the LGBTQ movement in America. A civil war in Biafra resulted in three million starving children and adults in desperate need of international aid. Increasing violence in Northern Ireland led Britain to deploy troops there to try and restore calm.

Fast forward 50 years, the U.S. and the world are, once again, in a state of disarray and divisiveness. The more things change, the more they stay the same. That makes July 20 and 21, 1969 as relevant as ever. Indeed, the Moon landing and walk are collectively cited as THE world-changing moment of the 20th century. As a PR professional looking back — and then forward — the only question for me is, what is that “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” in 2019?

Will it be as monumental as space travel, or as spontaneous as Stonewall, or as surprisingly significant as Woodstock? It could come from anywhere at any time. What will turn a single date on the calendar into an important anniversary 25 or 50 or 100 years from now?

While I may not be around to promote it, I’m confident that the next generations of PR pros will certainly do it justice.

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