For any fellow space geeks out there, the last few week have been a very exciting NASA adventure, with Curiosity landing on Mars and transmitting amazing photos back to earth.  Videos and photos of the NASA employees erupting with joy after the 7 minutes of silence during the landing were very moving.  I love such great news stories.

Employers can learn a lot from NASA as an employer.  I say this not just because I’m going to be an astronaut when I grow up and want to suck up to my future employer, but also because NASA has managed to nail on the head the use of social media in the workplace – at least it so appears to a mass consumer like me.

Simon Houpt wrote a great piece in the Globe & Mail the week of the landing setting out the ways that NASA employees have successfully used social media to discuss and promote its workplace activities.

From the Twitter feeds (@MarsCuriosity, over a million followers), to Facebook, to the personable interviews generating great social media content, NASA has generated an online buzz through its own employees.  This includes spin-off NASA related online conversations, such as the entertaining Twitter feed of @SarcasticRover (e.g. “I just did my first geological survey of Mars… most rocks are undecided, but still plan to vote. Go Democracy! #curiosity2012).

NASA employees engage with the public (i.e. the customer, client, audience) directly through tweets, blog posts and interviews.  NASA has cut out the middle person and encourages the press to directly access NASA’s own media sources, rather than farming out the information through a third party.

I realize most employers do not have an annual budget of $18 billion, or the universally known and valued brand that NASA enjoys.  I also suspect NASA’s main recruiting “problem” is which super smart and capable applicant to choose from.

Even given those obvious advantages, the fact remains that NASA has a very important brand to protect.  How do you do that if your employees are tweeting at will with no central control?  It’s the ongoing debate of spending lots of the marketing budget to create a globally recognized, unified brand and voice, while figuring out how to engage in social media, which involves an inherently individual voice and effort.

In NASA’s case, perhaps it’s an elaborate internal marketing strategy to appear to be giving their employees free reign on social media, while in fact only tightly controlled and pre-approved content providers are seemingly tweeting at will.  I’ll let you know when Starfleet Academy – I mean, NASA – hires me on.

Every organization has its own mandate around sensitive information, controlling its brand, and dealing with a broad range of employee literary and social media skills – from the Law Society, to a military defence manufacturer, to a non-profit religious charity, there will be no one-size fits all.

The lesson from NASA, however, is that even a large, high profile, globally branded enterprise with presumably plenty of sensitive and confidential information has managed to allow the individual voices of their employees to be heard online – and concurrently, to have a personable corporate social media voice.