Our work as a Science PR Agency means we are always interested to hear about some of the unexpected consequences that can arise from sharing a story about cutting-edge scientific research. There were some great examples when the CIPR STEM Group hosted a seminar with speakers from NERC (the Natural Environment Research Council) and CERN, the particle physics research body.
NERC famously hit the headlines in 2016 when its social #NameOurShip poll went viral, and the public voted for the name RRS Boaty McBoatface. As for blue-sky particle research facility CERN, it was featured in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons – which led to it hitting the headlines as potentially leading to the end of the world.
Speaking at the event, Julia Maddock, NERC’s Associate Director of Communications & Engagement explained how Boaty McBoatface went viral and what that meant to her team. NERC had to respond fast to keep up and Julia had to respond fast – upgrading web servers, engaging colleagues from every part of the organisation to review alternative suggestions for the ship’s name and educating her leadership team on what it means to ‘go viral’.
How to handle going viral
Her big takeaway was that because NERC’s leaders had a sense of humour and were willing to ride the wave of interest, the organisation had a step change in public awareness. Before Boaty McBoatface, NERC had struggled to be heard. But this new experience has given it cut-through for sustained long-term interest in its research.
The experience also held challenges – some stakeholders were worried that the attention had got out of control and that NERC’s messages may be lost – so Julia spent time reassuring stakeholders.
CERN – THE END OF THE WORLD?
As former Head of Communications at CERN, James Gillies said the same was true when a conspiracy theory arose that research at its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) would lead to the end of the world. While tabloid editors had fun mixing hard science with popular fiction, some members of the public were genuinely worried. James even spent time on the phone with individuals who were only convinced after learning that Professor Stephen Hawking thought the science was safe.
Like Julia, James praised his leadership team, who recognised that although science fiction is often far from the truth, it can open the door to wider public engagement. CERN has since capitalised on its starring role, for example by premiering footage from the Angels and Demons movie. Major media outlets now regularly cover particle physics news that would once have been restricted to specialist magazines.
Ultimately, the public likes a bit of a thrill, so serious science can become a laugh or a scream in the public domain. By accepting this, NERC and CERN have both come out with a stronger profile and sustained interest.
6 TOP TIPS TO DEAL WITH YOUR SCIENCE STORY GOING VIRAL
The presenters shared a few top tips on what to do if your science story goes viral for the “wrong” reasons:
Make sure you have a good relationship with the person who looks after your website – you may need to upgrade your servers fast.
If you’re accepting suggestions from the public, it’s important to validate them before they go live – you may need to weed out a lot of cheeky suggestions.
Make it really easy to find your organisation’s reaction on your website – if your story goes viral, it should be prominent on your home page.
Be ready to answer calls on a 24/7 basis as newsrooms around the world log in and out of work.
Be prepared to take time out to reassure stakeholders and make sure you address their concerns.
Be ready for ongoing heightened interest. Viral stories live a long time in the public consciousness, with anniversaries, copycat memes and similar stories popping up regularly.
While both organisations gained wide attention from these stories, they did arise naturally. However attractive it might seem, it’s virtually impossible to engineer something that will work as well. As with any public relations activity, interest depends on the prevailing mood and how the story sits in relation to other news.
The golden rule for any PR holds true for viral: stories must be simple enough to cut through and they must be genuinely new.
The best way to deal with reputational risks is to already have a plan in action before they go viral. That’s where we can help you to start getting your plan together.