Behind the Headlines: RRS Boaty McBoatface

Behind the Headlines: RRS Boaty McBoatface

Will Spratt

No one could have predicted what would happen when the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) opened up suggestions to name their multi million pound research vessel to the internet. Will Spratt goes behind the headlines to look at the surprising reaction.

What’s happened?

Last week, NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) which funds independent research, training and innovation in environmental science in the UK, launched a campaign asking the public to submit names for its new £200 million polar research ship.

Good intentions are at the heart of this – namely in looking to raise the profile of environmental science. Jo Johnson, the Universities and science minister was quoted in the press release announcing the initiative asking, “Can you imagine one of the world’s biggest research labs travelling to the Antarctic with your suggested name proudly emblazoned on the side?’

But uptake in the campaign has probably exceeded NERC’s expectations when it emerged that the most popular name – by 25k votes – is ‘Boaty McBoatface’, which is also something a bit different to what NERC was anticipating.

Why’s it important?

Crowdfunding or crowdsourcing an idea are increasingly common PR tactics – and justifiably so. It can become the driving force behind an idea or campaign, which is why the likes of change.org have become such important websites for campaigners.

But handing over a major decision to the public doesn’t come without some big risks – take your pick from mischief, ridicule and malicious subterfuge or a cocktail of all of the above.

What’s the reaction been?

Enthusiastic. People have voted in their droves – and the website (on Monday) was inactive for long periods due to technical problems and exceptionally high visitor traffic. The story was also trending on Twitter for most of the day as it jostled alongside Tory party infighting as the leading news story.

The story also developed in part as the man who originally suggested the name publically apologised to NERC for what he has started.

Best headline?

Any serious website with ‘Boaty McBoatface’ in its headlines warrants a double take. The ridiculousness of the whole situation is summarised nicely by ITV News’ ‘Boaty McBoatface leads poll to find name for new ship.’

What’s next?

NERC were wise to explain that the name must ‘exemplify the work the boat will do, including studying ice sheets, ocean current and marine life as part of the British Antarctic Survey’. In addition, they declared that ‘the final name will be selected by NERC.’ Both of these give NERC the opportunity to take the matter into their own hands.

But they still face a test of leadership in the public gaze.  If they do choose to look beyond ‘Boaty McBoatface’, they will need to find a way of disappointing its many backers with a solid explanation of their reasoning (if they were not obvious enough). They would also do well to lace this with a heavy dose of light-hearted humour. In other suggested front running names – such as RRS Attenborough – the NERC has options which will allow it to choose a name which will have the broad emotional appeal to appease the crowds.

Nevertheless, NERC has probably discovered that ‘safety in numbers’ does not always apply.