Why Boaty McBoatface highlights the consequences of getting engagement wrong

When the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) opened up a competition to name its new GBP200m polar research ship, it’s safe to say it wasn’t expecting what was about to happen.

At the end of the 30-day crowd sourcing competition on Saturday evening, 124,109 members of the public had cast their vote to name the vessel “Boaty McBoatface”.

Now it’s not just the name itself that comes as a surprise, this level of engagement from the public was also unexpected. Boaty McBoatface, the NERC and the mission have gone viral, which was the plan, right?

It’s understandable that this doesn’t sit comfortably with everyone, but what can you do? You put the decisions in others’ hands, and as long as it’s not offensive or damaging, surely you have to see it through regardless of your personal opinion.

Well not according to Jo Johnson, the science minister, who has implied the name is not serious enough to represent the ship’s mission, and so the government may review all the names entered.

No one is denying it’s a tough decision for the NERC; someone is going to be miffed. However, the damage to brand reputation and consumer engagement should Boaty McBoatface not come to life, could be irreparable.

Applying this to your internal comms and engagement strategy

When creating an internal communications and employee engagement strategy, it’s a similar decision process to that which faced the NERC. Quite simply put, do you want a particular campaign to be top-down or bottom-up?

Now, thanks to James Hand, the person behind the name, you can ask yourself how disastrous a Boaty McBoatface moment would be. If it could cause a problem, just don’t opt for employee sourcing.

If the senior team ask for employee opinion and then disregard it, the effects on engagement would be far worse than those impending on the NERC. As this affects employees’ lives directly, it’s important their opinion is valued and the senior team are trusted. If these things are lost, it’s incredibly hard to restore.

Is there a way to limit the unexpected?

It’s worth considering that whilst the public understand the importance of the NERC vessel’s mission, for a large number of people there was little affinity to it. Brand awareness, and in turn engagement, was low.

This doesn’t mean just because an employee works somewhere that their affinity to the employers’ brand is any different. It’s something that needs to be maintained from joining the organisation, and more often than not, needs to come from the senior team.

Encouraging the senior team to actively engage with employees in an open environment, like on a company intranet, will embed trust, engagement and a commitment to help the company achieve its mission. By setting the tone on a visible platform consistently, you are increasing brand advocacy and encouraging employees to communicate in a more meaningful way.