A victory for trivialisation or a serious attempt at boosting meaningful public engagement in science?
Or, as another questioner asked, was it a case of ‘any publicity being good publicity’?
Those were the intriguing questions put to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) communication team at Tuesday’s Science and Technology Select Committee hearing. MPs set out to probe the depth of the engagement generated by Boaty McBoatface.
Did it go beyond so called vanity measures?
Much has been written about ‘Boaty’ – quite a bit of it by ourselves in our media training blogs – so it was fascinating to see representatives from the NERC give their account of the success of the ‘Name Our Ship’ competition.
NERC admitted to being taken by surprise by the levels of interest in the competition to name its new £200m polar research ship, stating it had been ‘wildly more successful’ than previous campaigns. It had set out to reach two million people through Twitter and to get a ‘good couple of hits’ in national newspaper.
In fact its ‘name our ship’ hashtag reached 23 million people; the ‘Boaty McBoatface’ hashtag reached 214 million Twitter users and there was broad coverage across mainstream media and even into light entertainment shows.
In short, science was being talked about in places where it would not normally be discussed.
Professor Duncan Wingham, the Chief Executive of NERC, put this into context by saying: “We could make the claim we are probably now the best known research council in the world. We could make the claim that because of that there are hundreds of thousands of people not only in the UK but around the world who now not only know about us but know about the science we’ve done.
“We know we have attracted extraordinary attention, as indeed for example have the makers of the ship, and in many, many ways we feel this has been an astonishingly great outcome for us. In addition it has put a smile on everybody’s face.”
NERC admits that many people have been drawn to the competition through the humour of the ‘Boaty’ name which won the public vote, but insists the levels of engagement it has achieved runs much deeper than that.
It points to the fact that more people have been visiting its website and following its social media accounts and that 60,000 people viewed at least a minute of content of new You Tube videos on science and building the vessel.
Professor Wingham said: “We can see very clearly through the press and media coverage we got that although Boaty McBoatface was the tagline, there is evidence of people reading about the boat, reading about the science and what we do."
NERC says the completion has in particular made a younger audience aware of the work it does and is keen to build on that engagement. Although the decision was taken to name the ship Attenborough, it hopes enabling the Boaty McBoatface name to live on through a remotely operated sub-sea vehicle will help it maintain some of this new found interest.
Professor Wingham said: “It’s why we wanted to keep the name alive and associate it with a thing. The submarines themselves will have many adventures – we have lost one on an occasion and had to organise a rescue – and I think there is much we can do with that.
“This has put in many people’s minds the existence of an object called NERC, which I don’t think they knew about before and to some extent its role and that won’t go away that quickly. That will be around in their memories. If we can continue to engage with that as maybe some of these youngsters get older in broadening out people’s interest then we will have achieved a long term success from what right now has been a short term success.”
And that does not sound trivial to us.
So has NERC learnt anything from the amazing success of this campaign?
“Be prepared to over achieve”, was the emphatic answer given by Julia Maddock, NERC’S Associate Director of Communications and Engagement.
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