Most social media and PR pros know the risks of a branded hashtag campaign, but that caution also applies to online audience polls.
The Natural Environment Research Council is learning that lesson. It recently turned to the Internet to crowdsource a name for its newest polar research vessel:
— NERC (@NERCscience) March 20, 2016
“Shackleton. Endeavour. Falcon. These are just some of the names suggested for the UK’s next world-class polar research ship as part of a campaign launched today for the public to put forward names for the state-of-the-art vessel to be built in the North West of England,” NERC said in its press release announcement.
The poll, which was launched Thursday, has been so popular that on Sunday the poll website crashed due to the number of people voting.
It’s a move that seems great for NERC—until you look at the name that’s leading the pack: “RSS Boaty McBoatface.” The Guardian further explained:
Just a day after the NERC launched its poll to name the £200m vessel – which will first head to Antarctica in 2019 – the clear favourite was RRS Boaty McBoatface, with well over 18,000 votes. The RRS stands for royal research ship.
Coming a distant second was the considerably more serious-minded suggestion of naming the vessel after Henry Worsley, the British explorer who died in January near the end of his attempt to become the first person to cross the Antarctic unaided.
Twitter users have been reacting to the news with delight:
— Fran Worley (@FranWorley) March 21, 2016
— Blue Water Divers (@BWDBDA) March 20, 2016
I just discovered Boaty McBoatface and I am so proud to share the planet with all of you who is making this happen https://t.co/f99AFz5i9Z
— Melissa Martin (@DoubleEmMartin) March 21, 2016
— Imran Khan (@imrankhan) March 19, 2016
Words cannot describe how much I love the notion of naming the new royal research vessel #BoatyMcBoatface
— Dr Vicky Forster (@vickyyyf) March 20, 2016
Other Twitter users shared advice, which might be helpful to PR pros in the future:
— Jeremy Vine (@theJeremyVine) March 21, 2016
The poll’s popularity even spawned a Twitter account devoted to Boaty McBoatface:
— Boaty McBoatface (@BoatyMcBoatface) March 19, 2016
The creator of “Boaty McBoatface”—former BBC presenter, James Hand—told the BBC that he came up with the moniker to add to the joke names already in the poll:
I read the story about naming the ship on the BBC website on Thursday and some of the entries were really funny—my [favorite] was ‘Clifford The Big Red Boat.’
I thought I would throw one into the ring. By Friday night it was leading by a couple of thousand, and when the site crashed on Sunday it was leading by 8,000. It’s been utterly bizarre.
“I’ve apologized profusely to the people behind the website,” Hand told the BBC. “It was actually nothing to do with me. It was my suggestion, but the storm that has been created has legs of its own.”
Hand also tweeted an apology to NERC’s associate director of communications, Julia Maddock, but Maddock said that the organization was “delighted” and loved the attention:
However, it seems that the organization’s excitement has dampened considerably. On Monday morning GMT, NERC tweeted the following update:
— NERC (@NERCscience) March 21, 2016
Though NERC made no other announcements, Alexander Smith—a reporter for NBC News’ London bureau—gave Twitter users a peek into what was happening behind the scenes.
Roughly an hour after the organization’s tweet, Smith tweeted the following:
#BoatyMcBoatface update: No one at the National Environment Research Council is free to speak to me bcos they’re all in a “crisis meeting”
— Alexander Smith (@AlexSmithNBC) March 21, 2016
Ned Donovan, a reporter for Daily Mail, confirmed that the organization’s gratefulness for the attention is fading:
@AlexSmithNBC When I called them they were really happy it was getting attention. That was Thursday. Then it changed.
— Ned Donovan (@Ned_Donovan) March 21, 2016
On Monday, Smith reported this:
NERC Director of Corporate Affairs Alison Robinson said in an emailed statement later Monday: “We are very much enjoying hearing everyone’s ideas.” But she pointed out that the poll was not binding, with the research council reserving the right to have the final say on naming the state-of-the-art vessel.
The statement is an indication that NERC will not choose “RSS Boaty McBoatface” as the vessel’s name. If it does, the organization faces backlash for ignoring poll numbers—or opening up the ship’s naming to people on the Internet in the first place.
— Karl Wilding (@karlwilding) March 21, 2016
Smith reported that the poll’s organizers were expecting those taking part to be marine research fans:
Lord West, a former British sea lord in charge of the U.K.’s navy, said the organizers had set up the voting system expecting voters to be “mainly marine research fans” who would come up with more serious names.
The Verge reported that it’s not the first time an organization received unexpected results from an online poll:
The NERC might be great at researching polar science stuff, but it’s apparently not so hot when it comes to [I]nternet history. Even a cursory check would’ve shown that asking the internet to name anything is a bad idea, as Mountain Dew found out in 2012 when the forces of 4chan conspired to name its new flavor “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong.” The drink maker was forced to take the poll down, conceding the loss to the [I]nternet, but the NERC should avoid that fate—it’s cleverly marked the submitted names as “suggestions” only.
Greenpeace learned a similar lesson in 2007, when the Internet voted to name a whale “Mr. Splashy Pants.” After trying to divert attention from the silly name, Greenpeace’s PR team embraced it and used the popularity (the name received more than 119,000 votes) to drum up additional money through Mr. Splashy Pants merchandise.
NERC’s poll won’t be over until April 16, but there’s no word on whether voting will close early. The organization shared the following update on Twitter and Facebook but has largely remained silent:
— NERC (@NERCscience) March 21, 2016
At the time of publication, NERC’s website poll is still down.
How would you advise NERC’s communications team at this point, PR Daily readers?