|Public Relations Takeaways from Boaty McBoatface
By: Bulldog Reporter
When an agency of the British government put the name of its new polar research vessel up to an Internet vote, it was probably counting on something like the Shackleton, the Endeavor or something paying homage to a great scientist or ship of the past.
What it wound up with by an overwhelming majority was…Boaty McBoatface.
Such is the problem—or opportunity, depending on how you look at it—of enlisting the public to name something, vote for someone, or otherwise participate in processes that are traditionally handled by a marketing team, or other professionals. These kind of campaigns can be a boon to creativity, can engage people with your cause, business, or product in a way that would otherwise be impossible, and can make you look like a truly open organization that values the input of its constituents.
But sometimes you get Boaty McBoatface. It’s noteworthy that the name was submitted, presumably as a joke, by a public relations professional and former BBC employee, before sprouting Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-like wings and taking off online.
It’s unclear whether the Natural Environment Research Council, which commissioned the $287 million ship, will abide by the wish, and the whim, of voters, but there are some useful lessons for PR professionals who decide to follow suit and launch an online vote to capture attention.
Roll with it. If you’re going to do this, you have to go all-in, and let the ships fall where they may. If that means a joke gains viral traction, you’ll have to get over yourself and figure out a way to live with it. Does this mean “the people have spoken” trumps all? Not necessarily, but if the result is inoffensive and doesn’t create a bigger PR problem than it solves, the best thing to do is get in on the joke. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll look like a responsive organization, and maybe even a playful one, which means a human one.
Reject the masses at your own risk. On the flipside, be prepared to incur some negative feedback if you reject the voice of the people. SeaWorld faced a firestorm of criticism when it chose to ignore critical comments and questions that resulted from its arguably well-intentioned “Ask SeaWorld” social media campaign in the wake of the documentary “Blackfish.” And the National Hockey League came off as tone-deaf at best, and a bully at worst when it resisted a fan vote to include enforcer John Scott in its recent All-Star Tournament. If you make a promise, even a legally non-binding one, you’ll have egg on your McBoatface if you go back on it.
Go in with eyes wide open. There’s inherent risk in opening up your organization to the will of consumers or other constituents, so this tactic shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you’re soliciting designs for a memorial or statue, for example, it might be highly inappropriate to use a frivolous concept or pose just because a vocal group hijacked the process. If you choose to go this route, be clear that the ultimate decision will remain with the organization, and the public input is advisory only.
Don’t look a gift horse in the boatface. As when Scott scored twice and authored the feel-good story of the NHL’s mid-season party, there’s often much to be gained by embracing even a joke or something that initially seems counter-intuitive to your goal. Seriously, what school child or elementary teacher in the U.K. and beyond wouldn’t welcome a science vessel named “R.R.S. Boaty McBoatface”? It’s something straight out of a Pixar movie, for heaven’s sake.
This level of engagement, let alone the press surrounding the vote itself, would be unapproachable if the ship were named R.R.S. Shackleton. Just imagine the crowds on hand to greet the ship when it returns to its home port, or visits another one. Paint some eyes and a toothy smile on the ship’s bow, work out a deal to get miniatures included in U.K. McDonald’s happy meals, and bask in the happy serendipity of an irreverent suggestion.
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