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Duncan Hopwood

The Arecibo Message: Seven PR lessons from the greatest communication never made

January 13, 2016

“Pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space…” – Monty Python’s Meaning of Life

Five years after the moon landing, astronomer Frank Drake sent a radio message from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico far out into space. It was a brilliant attempt to tell ET there was someone down here, and we wanted to talk.

Or so it seemed.

The Arecibo Message was not the Pink Floyd question: “Is there anybody out there?” There were no words at all. It was made up of ones and zeros, transmitted at set wavelengths, so aliens would know it came from a civilisation.

The transmission was aimed at a large and nearby group of stars, to give it more chance of getting to the anticipated aliens sooner.

But the Arecibo Message will never reach its destination.

The target, M13, is a globular cluster that is 1.5 billion times farther from Earth than the Sun. It will take 25,000 years for the transmission to get there, and just as long for any response to travel back to Earth. But, even if they exist, the aliens in M13 won’t be getting back to us. By the time the message arrives, those stars will no longer be there.

So what was the point?

In 1999, Cornell University admitted the exercise was not designed to make First Contact but to show off the prowess of its improved radio astronomy unit at Arecibo. The three-minute transmission was sent during a ceremony to mark the opening. M13 was chosen because it happened to be in the right part of the sky at the time.

For practitioners and students, the Arecibo Message tells us a lot about PR basics.

  1. What a way to capture the public imagination and the headlines for what would otherwise have been a dry opening event for boffins.
  2. Target your message at the location that is most likely to contain the people you want to reach.
  3. The best audience may well be the one that is biggest, nearest and most receptive right now, but it might not be.
  4. Your message will take time to get through. Send it soon.
  5. The response will take time to come back. Be patient but don’t wait in vain.
  6. Speak in a language that will be understood.
  7. Keep trying. The truth is out there.