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As an exercise in raising awareness and publicity, the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) ‘Name Our Ship’ online competition has been an unprecedented success.
But now the result is known it faces a huge PR headache as it makes the final decision on the name for its new state-of-the-art £200m vessel.
Does it go with Boaty McBoatface the somewhat juvenile but humorous runaway winner chosen by the public? Or does it, as seems more likely, decide to ignore the will of the people and choose something more in keeping with the serious nature of its work?
This may sound a bit trivial, but such has been the level of public and press interest that NERC has been left with a very delicate decision and it will need to tread extremely carefully.
Boaty McBoatface has undoubtedly captured the public’s imagination – 124,109 people voted for it - and let’s be honest it can’t be easy to get people interested in polar oceanic research.
Ignoring the outcome of the vote could see much of that interest fall away, together with intrigue in the future work of the boat. The council would risk being seen as humourless and the poll could be viewed as nothing more than a hollow publicity stunt.
There may also be a wave of negative publicity. The Times, for example, has already carried an editorial arguing that the public decision must be listened to in the interests of democracy.
But equally NERC is coming under pressure from the Government to sink Boaty McBoatface before it sets sail. Science minister Jo Johnson has already shown he is not a fan and has indicated he wants something which ‘captures the spirit of scientific endeavour’. The highest placed scientific based suggestion in the poll was RRS Henry Worsley which came third – a very different name to Boaty McBoatface.
Additionally, those who have had a long term interest in the work of NERC may argue that the credibility of the organisation is being put at risk if it opted for a joke name.
Ultimately it needs to consider how many of the 120,000 odd voters are the audience it wants to regularly engage with and how many just got caught up in the social media hype.
Asking the internet for help has a habit of not ending well and chief executive Duncan Wingham, who reportedly makes the final decision, now finds himself in a tricky situation.
NERC has so far said very little about the results of the poll only saying: “We are no longer accepting suggestions to name our ship as we have now reached the closing date of April 16.
“We’ve had an extremely high volume of suggestions and will now review all of the suggested names. The final decision will be announced in due course.”
Our advice is for that decision to be made sooner rather than later to put an end to the speculation, both in the mainstream media and on social media.
On our media training courses we stress the importance of being open and honest and there is nothing wrong with NERC saying that the poll was initiated to raise publicity and awareness.
Perhaps it could reach a compromise and name a lifeboat on the research ship Boaty McBoatface while giving the ship itself a more serious name, or even develop a cartoon character or toy with the humorous name. That could help maintain some of the interest evoked in the younger audience.
Whichever decision NERC makes on the name it is vital that media trained spokespeople are available to communicate the outcome with strong messages to deliver and that they are prepared for the negative questions journalists will inevitably ask.
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