The PR lessons from Boaty McBoatface
It began as a bright idea to interest the general public in polar research and swiftly became an internet phenomenon. The little-known National Environment Research Council (NERC) wanted to come up with a fitting name for its advanced new polar exploration vessel, and so decided to hold an open competition for the public to provide suggestions and then to vote on which they thought would be most suitable.
All was going well, with a selection of worthy names in the running, until BBC radio presenter James Hand came up with Boaty McBoatface. Interest (and votes) skyrocketed, with other new suggestions including RRS I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie, RRS Capt’n Birdseye Get Off My Cod and the apt RRS It’s bloody cold here. In all 7,000 names were provided by the public, though Boaty McBoatface was the clear winner with just over 124,000 votes cast for it. Through Twitter alone, the research council reached 214m people after the BoatyMcBoatface hashtag went viral.
This left the NERC with a bit of a problem, as Boaty McBoatface wasn’t quite what they were thinking of when they started the process. Instead, they’ve chosen the fourth place name, RRS David Attenborough – although one of the boat’s submersibles has been given the Boaty McBoatface moniker (surely it should be Subby McSubface?). The head of the NERC was even called before a Commons Select Committee to discuss whether the PR campaign was a success or failure – which either shows how little MPs know about PR or was simply an excuse for them to make boat-based puns.
So what can businesses learn from the PR campaign? I think there are four things:
1. Don’t take yourself too seriously
It would have been really simple for the NERC to close the poll or simply vet suggested names to ensure that they were ‘sensible’. But it didn’t – it rode the wave of good PR and used it to draw attention to what it does. Even the most casual observer now knows that the NERC does something with polar science.
2. Have a Plan B
The NERC made very clear from the start that the winner of the online poll wouldn’t necessarily be chosen as the name of the ship, and that public suggestions were merely ideas that would be considered. That meant that when it didn’t chose Boaty McBoatface the backlash was minimised – even more so when one of its robot submersibles was given the name. Expect him/her/it to get their own Twitter account as soon as they are launched.
3. Link to the rest of the news agenda
In many ways NERC was lucky, as the poll closed at pretty much the same time as the nation celebrated David Attenborough’s 90th birthday. This gave it a ready-made name that summed up exactly the right image of science, exploration and explanation that they were looking for. Holding the competition first, rather than simply naming the ship after Attenborough made all the difference to coverage of the announcement – it moved from a news in brief to the front pages of the press and onto the national news.
4. Make it work going forward
This is where NERC has to capitalise on the interest and goodwill of the British public and keep them involved once the ship is launched and dispatched to the polar regions. It needs to engage through social media, popularising what the vessel is doing and the benefits it brings in a straightforward and approachable way. That will not only help its work in particular, but will hopefully spark wider interest in science generally, guaranteeing its future importance (and funding).
So, before embarking on a campaign that may take off make sure you have a plan B, set clear rules of engagement but be prepared to go with the flow, and keep momentum going beyond the end of the programme. That’s the overall lesson for all communicators, whatever sector they are in or product they are publicising.
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