Ellie St George-Yorke, Account Director
The compatibility of two largely disconnected spheres was put to the test earlier this year with the emergence of Boaty McBoatface as the people’s winner of the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) #NameOurShip campaign. The maritime community has not often found itself on the receiving end of considerable public enthusiasm. NERC’s decision to allow the public to suggest and vote for names for the new £200 million arctic research vessel represented a concerted effort to rectify this.
Yet Boaty McBoatface, a seemingly innocent suggestion, triggered a conflict between the necessity of harnessing public engagement, and the importance of maintaining national reputation and industry credibility. Boaty arguably did more to boost the prominence of the maritime sector in the popular psyche than previous campaigns, granting accessibility to a previously ill informed and often indifferent public. It is possible to state with relative confidence that the inauguration of the new research vessel would have gone relatively unmarked had it not been for this jocular suggestion.
However, the name also risked undermining the significance of seafaring activities in general and the work of the vessel itself. Historically, Britain has a proud reputation at sea, both in terms of naval operations and in advancing maritime research. RRS Boaty McBoatface hardly screams scientific innovation and research excellence. RRS Sir David Attenborough, however – the name adopted by NERC and the Government in spite of the public winner – embodies this effortlessly.
It is unsurprising, then, that the campaign was accompanied by such fierce debate between unwavering advocates of democratic decision-making, and industry professionals who no doubt found the name suggestion mildly insulting. Such a feeling is not without reason, particularly when considering the contribution, and the sacrifices, made by those who spend their working lives at sea.
Suffering from a severe bout of national sea blindness, the majority of the public possesses little understanding of the extent to which Britain is heavily reliant upon the maritime industry. The sector is a major employer, directly employing over 200,000 people last year. It also greatly facilitates economic activity, with 95% of national imports and 75% of exports being transported via sea. A 2014 Seafarers UK survey revealed that only 2% of the public were aware of this.
But more alarming is the fact that the maritime industry has an exceptionally high occupational mortality rate, posing a higher risk to employees than any other sector. Naming a research vessel Boaty McBoatface does not sit so well alongside this fact, undoubtedly trivialising the inherent danger. Alongside the sobering news of fatalities at sea, the issue suddenly loses all traces of hilarity.
It is understandable, therefore, that many industry professionals were reluctant to subject the naming of an important vessel to the whim of what is essentially an ill-informed public. Even James Hand, the man behind Boaty, recognised the need for a more befitting name, choosing to vote for Sir David Attenborough and offering an apology to NERC for any embarrassment caused.
The decision to opt for an alternative name has seen considerable public criticism levelled against NERC and the government for backtracking on an apparently successful campaign. Yet their handling of the situation serves as an example of astute PR management and shrewd judgement. In christening one of the remotely operated submarines Boaty McBoatface, the spirit of public enthusiasm has been kept alive. It signifies a desire for popular longevity, and a continued public connection to the industry.
Naming the main vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough, a suggestion which actually came fourth in the competition, is a further nod to public sentiment. A man whose popularity rivals that of international pop stars, Attenborough enjoys an exclusive position within the heart of the nation. His name alone perhaps possesses enough clout to ensure a firm following of the vessel’s projects and findings. In reaching this outcome, NERC has offered itself a life raft for avoiding any potential future PR crisis that would result from such an indelicate name.
Yet despite the unanticipated result of the campaign, it did succeed in fuelling public discussion around a topic that otherwise could have gone widely overlooked. There is a glaring need for the maritime industry to become more public-facing and engaging to encourage greater understanding and appreciation of the work of seafarers and the sector itself. Doing so would offer a remedy to the dreaded sea blindness; the very thing contributing to the sector’s omission from popular interest and understanding.
Source: Daily Mail
We can already see the industry slipping once more out of mainstream media. The petition launched by the public to reverse the decision to give the boat a different name has received only a tiny proportion of signatures compared to the number of votes for Boaty itself. To prevent this level of public disengagement the industry needs to readily embrace and exploit communications channels open to them. A greater willingness to utilise all forms of media to reach a wider audience would help to sustain the visibility initially granted by the NERC campaign.
There is often a tendency in the industry to shy away from engaging with a mainstream public however it is possible for this public success to be reflected across the entire sector, where the conversation has been muted for too long. Boaty McBoatface, the accidental product of an inviting PR campaign, accorded the industry the public recognition it deserves, albeit short-lived. It may have been a controversial wave of publicity, but can we see another one on the horizon?
This blog first appeared in the Nautilius International Telegraph in July.