Communications professionals spend a lot of time talking about Big Data these days. A keyword search for the term on PR Newswire yields about 500 press releases issued during the last two months alone. But how many of us are actually using Big Data to build campaigns?
For once, the buzzword du jour is more than just a buzzword for the PR industry; it is one of the most valuable resources we have to start to shape the narrative on behalf of our clients. To do that, we’re going to have to start thinking less about press releases that proclaim the next Big Data revolution and more about what that data is saying and how it fits into the current news cycle.
First, some background on Big Data, which has become a horrendously overused term. One of the clearest definitions of what it really is comes from the book, “Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think,” which explains that Big Data is unbounded and unstructured; imprecise but predictive and can’t show causation, but can show correlation.
And businesses love it. According to The Harvard Business Review, Wal-Mart Stores Inc alone collects more than 2.5 “petabytes” of data every hour from its customer transactions. A single petabyte is equivalent to about 20 million file cabinets worth of text.
It’s not just retailers like Wal-Mart who are using Big Data to dramatic effect. Pharmaceutical developments, financial trading models, healthcare benefit designs and even weather forecasts are being influenced by the “Moneyball” effect of Big Data.
What does this mean for PR? Well, for one, the media are growing increasingly reliant on data to build news stories. The Wall Street Journal, for example, currently employs a team of 26 visual journalists that produces data-heavy infographics for its online and print editions.
The growing hunger among journalists for this kind of data should come as no surprise. Intuitively, all PR pros know that unique data or proprietary research has proven to be a path to success.
Even the trusty old survey is a basic form of using data to tell a story. But few in the world of communication have taken a leadership role in harnessing all of the data that companies are collecting to inform their campaigns.
It’s a huge opportunity, but simply sending a bunch of liberal arts degree-toting PR pros off to the server farm is not going to work.
In our work developing data-centric communications strategies for some of the biggest information companies in the world, we’ve learned a few lessons about how to get the quants and the flacks to speak the same language:
▶ Get senior management buy-in. In any large organization, the task of accessing and interpreting vast reams of unstructured data falls to a team of PhDs and analysts who are genetically pre-disposed to embrace complexity.
PR pros spend their days trying to simplify. The only people who can get these two opposites to attract are the bosses. The data-based communications campaign needs support from above if it is ever going to get off the ground.
▶ Presentation is everything. Data is messy. Sending a reporter a 6,000-line Excel spreadsheet will not cut it. The ideal end presentation can take many forms: A research brief, a formal paper, a web-based dashboard and even an Op-ed. The key is to package the unstructured information into a narrative summary that helps journalists easily identify a trend that shapes the news cycle.
▶ Don’t overreach. One of the most important pieces of the Big Data definition above is that it shows correlation, but not necessarily causation. There is a temptation when looking at a trend line that’s been informed by petabytes of data to make bold predictions about the future based on what’s happened in the past. Futurist-style proclamations can actually undermine credibility. The key is to identify a trend; not to build a computerized crystal ball.
The Big Data revolution holds enormous potential for communicators, but there are many institutional hurdles sitting between the numbers and the ability to talk about them publicly.
Those who succeed will be those who can develop campaign strategies that are as detail-obsessed as the data that goes into them; break down silos in their organizations and capture the micro and macro trends that get people talking. PRN
John Roderick is president of J. Roderick Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.