If there is one thing that we can all agree on – the naming of a polar research ship is not something which would traditionally generate the kind of nationwide media coverage it has over the past month.
When former BBC presenter James Hand jokingly entered a public competition to name the new £200m state-of-the-art ship, which is due to be built in 2019, he could have had no idea that his suggestion of ‘Boaty McBoatface’ would garner such public support and capture the imagination of the country so successfully.
Garnering quick support from the blog-o-sphere and social media channels, the ‘Boaty McBoatface’ suggestion soon went viral, with the public overwhelmingly endorsing the comical name for the new ship- and why not? It’s neither offensive nor particularly outlandish but I challenge anyone not to adopt a wry smile across their face every time they hear the name mentioned on TV and radio. It’s pretty much impossible.
Eventually, after achieving over 124,000 votes online, Boaty McBoatface triumphed in a bigger landslide than Labour’s famous 1997 general election victory. This is where the story takes a massive wrong turn – veering off the edge of a cliff and turning the PR dream into a politically correct nightmare of epic proportions.
Because, we all now know, Boaty McBoatface did not win – the decision was quickly taken out of the hands of the public and moved in-house to the Government who have now decided that the RRS (Royal Research Ship) David Attenborough is a much more befitting name than poor ‘Boaty McBoatface’.
In the public poll, David Attenborough came 4th overall – nowhere even close to the popularity of Boaty McBoatface – so why was the decision made to award the 4th choice as the overall winner?
By this point, Sky News, BBC, the Daily Mail and most of the British press had dedicated countless minutes and column-inches to the story which captured the hearts of a British public, looking for a rare glimmer of positive news amidst the daily turmoil of foreign conflict, asylum seekers, the Calais ‘Jungle’, a government at war with the NHS and junior doctors and massive job losses at BHS and in the country’s traditional steel and coal industries.
From a communications perspective, this is where major lessons could and should be learned.
Why was the decision made to, despite overwhelming public support, cast the social media competition aside and take the decision out of the hands of the public? Why even have a public competition in the first place if the decision is ultimately going to be taken by the ‘powers that be’ rather than allowing people a rare moment of joy?
Positive PR could have easily been achieved had they taken the nationwide publicity and utilised it to the advantage of the Royal Research Society. The RRS has probably never had such a far reaching media story and if the Government had been smart it would have harnessed this popularity and made the most out of it. It’s what we in the industry call an ‘easy-win’.
Instead the Government with its ill-thought decision has not only missed an open-goal of Chris Iwelumo-esque proportions, but blasted the ball into the back of its own proverbial net.
Just think of the goodwill and opportunities that could have been afforded to the RRS had they allowed ‘Boaty McBoatface’ to become a reality – the research ship could have eventually become a national tourist attraction, such is the level of support attributed to it.
I think there are two main lessons to be learnt from ‘Boaty McBoatface’ –
- If you’re not willing to let go of control and give the public the overall say in a public competition – don’t do it in the first place. The Government would have been well aware of the potential risks attached when opening up a naming competition to the public.
- If you do go ahead with such a competition – whatever you do, don’t backtrack once you’ve gone live and score an own-goal from a PR perspective. The public is more shrewd than it is given credit for and it is exactly this type of scenario that fuels scepticism of politics and politicians.
The Government has now backtracked on its original backtrack and announced that while the polar ship itself will not be named Boaty McBoatface, one of its remotely operated sub-sea vehicles will be named Boaty in recognition of the vote. A more futile attempt to save some face, I can’t remember.
Overall, I can’t help but feel that a massive opportunity has been missed.
To paraphrase a much used quote “Boaty McBoatface is dead. Long live Boaty McBoatface!”