Lessons in reputation from Boaty McBoatface:
Has sidelining the public vote done NERC more harm than good?

 
 

What's in a name?

Earlier this month, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) announced its decision not to name its newest polar research ship Boaty McBoatface, despite the name being a runaway winner with almost 125,000 votes in a public poll. Instead, the £200million vessel, which is due to become operational in 2019, will be named RRS Sir David Attenborough.

Has sidelining the public vote done NERC more harm than good?

From the moment former BBC Radio Jersey broadcaster James Hand flippantly threw the name into the ring, Boaty McBoatface grabbed the public imagination. Other brands were quick to jump on the bandwagon, with South West Trains’ Trainy McTrainface and Aer Lingus getting in on the action with a Planey McPlaneface media stunt. When racehorse Horsey McHorseface arrived on the scene, there was no doubt things had reached fever pitch.

When voting closed, Boaty McBoatface was the clear winner. And yet NERC chose not to go with the majority when they named the new research vessel, saying instead that they wanted a name that “captures the spirit of scientific endeavour”. Was this a mistake, or was the organisation right to select a more ‘sensible’ option?

Looking at social networks, today’s widely accepted barometer of public opinion, the story received a mixed response. Many were keen to see the vessel named Boaty McBoatface; others believed it would undermine NERC’s credibility. Some were confident the name would never make the cut whatever the poll result; with others getting in on the joke initially, but subsequently feeling ‘enough’s enough now; let’s get serious’ – a view NERC ultimately appears to have shared.

By choosing not to go with the poll, NERC risks losing the goodwill and continued engagement of those who voted – plus many more besides who took an interest in the story and would more than likely have continued to follow Boaty McBoatface’s progress. Will RRS Sir David Attenborough sustain public interest? We’ll see.

Whilst some in the scientific community seem to view Boaty McBoatface as a PR disaster, there’s no doubt the exercise put NERC firmly on the map and got the nation talking about a polar research ship. NERC may have missed an opportunity to build on that initial surge of goodwill – the decision to give the poll winning name to a remotely operated vehicle aboard RRS David Attenborough will be seen by many as a token gesture – but the fun and humour generated by the Name our Ship campaign is likely to endure.
    
 
The Partners Group

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