RRS Sir David Attenborough: Floating to the Top
Online Science Editor, Tom Dormer, explains the methods used by the Natural Environmental Research Council to boost the RRS Sir David Attenborough’s increase in publicity.
This September saw the naming of the new scientific research vessel, RRS Sir David Attenborough, which made its maiden voyage from Birkenhead docks 3 weeks ago.
The 130-meter-long vessel was a culmination of three years of construction and a £200 million investment from the Government (the largest in polar sciences since the 1980s).
The primary role of RRS Sir David Attenborough will be to replace RRS Ernest Shackleton and RRS James Clark Ross as platform to conduct world leading climate research in the polar regions.
Whilst the impact of this future research will be large and hugely beneficial, the impact the vessel had from its announcement and naming was one much larger than anything seen before in the UK.
In 2016, RRS Sir David Attenborough gained huge publicity from the Natural Environmental Research Council’s (NERC) poll to name their new ship. The clear winner: ‘RRS Boaty McBoatface’. Whilst this name was overruled (to the disappointment of many), the interest for Britain’s new research vessel had already increased.
By using Google Trends to show the search rate of a particular keyword, it is possible to plot the change in interest for the project.
In late March 2016, the time of the poll, there was a 400% increase in searches for the NERC – a characteristic shown by only trending topics online. The same period also saw over double the number of searches for both ‘research ship’ and ‘research vessel’.
This new interest in the research project, particularly from the younger generations, gave the scientific community a foothold to promote more of the work they were doing.
In late March 2016, the time of the poll, there was a 400% increase in searches for the NERC – a characteristic shown only by trending topics online.
At first, the NERC and their partners worked with the media making sure they continued to get the most accurate publicity possible. At the same time the they also took small models of the new vessel at stands around the country where they could discuss details about the project.
However, the most effective promotion took place when the NERC used the name which had made the vessel so popular in the first place.
The long-range autonomous submarine, Boaty McBoatface, was born, creating a direct link between ‘Attenborough’ and ‘McBoatface’ and preventing further backlash against the unpopular name change.
With their new star in place, the NERC used it as to its full potential; having its own exhibition in the London Science Museum and even introducing it to royalty. The selfies people were taking with the auto-sub came thick and fast on social media, with #BoatyMcBoatface still used a long after the NERC poll.
This new publicity was so successful, that when it was time to test’s the auto-sub’s debut mission in June this year, Google Trends measured a second large spike in internet searches for the project.
As the original name did not come from the council themselves, it’s easy to forget that RRS Sir David Attenborough’s rise to stardom was largely due to a social media team in-touch with the general public, and well directed publicity from the NERC.
This was a great example how to boosting publicity for a scientific project meaning the methods used by the NERC and their partners should be studied for all future science press releases.