The new Royal Research Ship will set sail on its first polar adventure in 2019. On board will be a hi-tech laboratory to rival any in the world and 90 of the most highly qualified scientists Britain has to offer. They’ll cast off with the Union Jack flying, tasked with solving some of the greatest mysteries of the icy wilderness and with our global reputation for excellence to protect.
A national poll was held to choose a name. So far, so predictable. What happened next however is amazing. Boaty McBoatface topped the poll and a national debate erupted over whether or not it should actually be given that title. The Times wrote an editorial on it – actually suggesting that it should.
What…? Has everybody taken leave of their senses.
HM Government should actually give a £200m investment and projection of scientific authority – an area in which we lead the world – a joke name?
Why? Because social media said so.
Social media isn't going away, it has shaped our world and will continue to. However, it isn’t and should never become a replacement for wisdom, judgment and leadership. This example, though funny and ostensibly of little significance, speaks volumes about the pitfalls of leadership in a modern, social media world.
I'm an ardent believer that everybody is entitled to a point of view and social media allows people to express these views – sage, funny, irreverent or repugnant – in a way we have never been able to before. The world, I believe is, for all the challenges this throws up, a better place as a result.
However, we should not use social media as a substitute for leadership, judgment and good old-fashioned decision-making.
The truth is, we expect and frequently need our leaders to make decisions – often, unpalatable ones – unapologetically and with confidence. We expect and need those decisions to be made unilaterally and without going to a committee.
That’s what we pay them for. It’s what we elect them for.
And when they offer the public the chance to choose any name they like for one of the jewels in the crown of Britain’s research fleet, they take a massive gamble. A gamble that was never going to pay off.
In advertising we are constantly striving to strike the right balance between using social media to connect and understand our clients and their customers better, while warning of playing to the lowest common denominator.
I say to all my clients: be mindful, be sensible. Always take the higher ground, make the right decision – not necessarily the most popular one – on your social media channels.
The 124,000 (and counting) Boaty McBoatface tweeters who campaigned so successfully that they numbered three times as many votes as the next runner up may think they’re just being funny, but when it comes to our reputation at the cutting edge of science, technology, R&D and academia, it suddenly becomes a lot more serious.
I'm all for leaders asking people their opinion. I’m dead against them losing the will and ability to hear what is said and go against the grain. Leadership isn't a popularity contest. Of course you can't call this boat that. Say it loud and clear and move on.
Chris Hirst is European and UK group CEO at Havas