23 Mar 2016

Joanna Newsome – Account Director at Spreckley

The completion of a new polar research vessel, filled with top scientists and mountains of equipment designed to better understand the environmental changes at the poles – well, it’s rarely consumer headline news is it? However, one particular sea-faring construction caught the British public’s imagination this past week when the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) opened the choice of naming the ship to all and sundry.

It was the perfect opportunity to select a name representative of the fantastic work about to be carried out; perhaps it was the right thing to choose a famous namesake known for their achievements in the field of Arctic and Antarctic exploration, or honour the memory of one of our well-loved British icons lost in the last 12 months?

Or… not.


Let’s go with RRS Boaty McBoatface.

Although outwardly “delighted” at the attention, NERC’s press office is probably ambivalently wondering whether this PR tactic has been a blessing or a curse, as the public vote has attracted astounding numbers of entries and votes overall (even crashing the website at one point over the weekend). This is primarily due to the attention ol’ Boaty has been garnering over the last few days, with 27,000 people behind the name at the time of publication. While more sensible suggestions such as Henry Worseley, David Attenborough or Ada Lovelace were gathering a few thousand thumbs up from people around the world, a simple off-the-cuff idea from ex-radio presenter James Hand has gone viral globally.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that online voting, social media and crowdsourcing have propelled an otherwise relatively low-key campaign to viral status. Plenty of online polls have been ‘sabotaged’ by practical jokers only for the public to either respond in despair or take it to their hearts – well-known examples include rapper Pitbull playing a fan-voted gig in freezing cold Kodiak in Alaska, and Rick Astley being voted “Best Act Ever” at the MTV Europe Music Awards 2008, despite not having had a hit in decades.

Either it works out and everyone is happy, or it doesn’t. For Pitbull, he went ahead and played the show anyway, giving the real fans in Kodiak a lasting memory destined never to be repeated. For Astley, it was a lot more sombre, as he felt his artistry had become a bit of a joke, especially in the wake of the Rickrolling clickbait phenomenon of 2007. In the case of McBoatface, it is unlikely that NERC will allow it to happen, and a panel of expert judges will contribute to the name selection, taking into account the public vote.

But there is a key difference for the NERC in that the organisation is used to promoting its work among key science journals and research outlets, with an aim to further the field and share new evidence among peers. National and consumer news headlines are few and far between, but this chance encounter with a comedic contributor has bought more positive PR among mass audiences than it could ever have hoped for. In the same way that Prof. Brian Cox can get grandma into astronomy, perhaps this small nugget of fun (which is still going by the way, with other brands jumping on the bandwagon so cleverly) could get one more 16-year-old interested in marine biology as a career, or even another million in funding from an investor.

This ‘chance PR’ (as I’m coining it) isn’t something you can feasibly ‘arrange’ as it were (lest you be found out), but it does demonstrate that in the end, the British public will respond to fun, no matter how serious the subject matter. As the NERC embraces its newfound fame with Joe Bloggs, the one takeaway we should remember from this is never to lose a sense of personality with your PR campaign. Always maintain a sense of humour, even if it’s B2B technology, and of course don’t forget if it does unexpectedly go viral – all hands on deck!