We’re All Geeks Now

Welcome to the Yottabyte Era.

Yottabyte, which is equal to one quadrillion gigabytes, is the term to describe the next frontier of data technology. We’re now in the so-called Exabyte. Before that we had Terabyte and Petabyte eras.

However you define the amount of data that’s at the disposal of PR and marketing professionals, the volume is mind-boggling.

“There’s no escaping the fact the velocity is ridiculous,” said Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, who delivered a keynote speech last week at Arthur W. Page Society’s spring meeting. “It’s not just that there’s a lot of data, and it’s not just that it’s hitting us quickly; it’s coming from a range of different sources and a lot of them are weird and new and, by our old standards, they’re kind of ragged and unpleasant to look at it.”

The speech, titled “Understanding Big Data,” underscored the growing onus on PR professionals to get a handle on the “Big Data” that is increasingly at the heart of online communications.

“The conversations around the things that we’re interested in are becoming more data-driven, certainly not overnight [and] certainly not exclusively data driven,” McAfee said to an audience of senior-level PR execs attending the meeting. “But we’re heading in this direction and I don’t see us going back the other way, simply because the truth is in the data and the tools are becoming more widespread.”

He added: “Are you and your organizations ready for this kind of change, or are you going to continue to pretend that these issues aren’t out there, and continue to operate and communicate as if you’re in a small-data world? I think that would be a very poor strategy.”

Call it the revenge of the left-brain, in which in order to succeed PR pros must increasingly adopt a “coldly logical” way of assessing information and data, possibly at the expense of more creative endeavors (right-brain).

One solution is for PR pros to develop a “geek map,” or create robust strategies for online communications and social media that stem from data, according to Suzy DeFrancis, chief public affairs officer at the American Red Cross.

“If a 130-year-old organization like the American Red Cross can jump into social data and big data, anybody can do it,” said DeFrancis, who was part of a panel discussion at the conference titled, “Putting Big Data to Work.”

DeFrancis discussed how, via its digital operations center, the American Red Cross was able to harness Big Data to inform the public (and to provide assistance) during Hurricane Sandy last October.

“This was the first disaster where we really saw the ability to put data we were acquiring from the pubic into action,” she said. “It no longer became something in the communications department, it became something that we were using for our operations.”

The challenge for PR pros is paramount: Embrace Big Data and invest in the tools that will help communicators make sense of all the content that’s informing their markets and messages. It’s an opportunity that, if Arthur W. Page Society’s spring meeting is any indication, could make or break the future prospects of public relations.

Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1