Communicators Beware: The Big Debate Around Big Data Is Heating Up

A Google network room at a data center in Council Bluffs (Associated Press)
A Google network room at a data center in Council Bluffs (Associated Press)

In the latest move to stem the damage caused by former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the White House released a report on Thursday that recommends placing limits on how both the government and private companies use the information they collect about their customers on the Internet. The long-anticipated report recommends six policy changes, including passing a national data breach law to require companies to disclose major data losses and a revisiting of policies regarding "Terms of Service" agreements, which nobody actually reads.

The report is also concerned with so-called "learning algorithms" that are used by technology companies to display ads tailored to an individual's tastes. The authors of the report express worries that the same algorithms which show you ads for products you may be interested in could be used for more nefarious, discriminatory purposes, as they can easily infer a user's race, gender and sexual orientation. When attached to a user's identity and placed in the wrong hands, those software judgments could eventually affect access to loans or job offers.

For organizations looking to use Big Data to their advantage, Edward Snowden opened a difficult debate. Consumers are now wondering how the information they freely share with their favorite brands and services is being used. And, with this report, the White House is trying to deflect the "Big Brother" image cast on it by Snowden onto private companies that use customer data.

Placing limits on how data is used is certainly not going to make it go away. PR professionals still need to learn how to harness the power of Big Data. If the trend of exposure and policy changes continues, doing so transparently and responsibly will soon be a perquisite.

As the landscape changes, how can PR professionals take advantage of Big Data? John Roderick, president of public relations consultancy J. Roderick Inc., shares some tips for communications professionals:

  • In the right hands, data can be sexy. If I met you at a cocktail party and told you I represented a healthcare company with one of the largest collections of insurance claims data in the world, you’d ditch your hors d’oeuvre and make a beeline for the guy who works in entertainment PR. However, if I told you about a New York Times story, which chronicled the rising cost of childbirth in the U.S. by using that insurance claims database, you might hang out for another pig in a blanket. Great data makes great stories, if you know how to package them.
  • Translators are essential. Data science is a science. And PR is, well, not exactly a science. This dichotomy presents an interesting opportunity for PR execs to nurture a data translator who serves as the intermediary between the hard core quants and the external communications team. This person can be an outside consultant brought in explicitly to help identify story ideas within an organization’s data assets, a marketing executive who has already made inroads into the data team or a dedicated “data communications officer” whose job it is to identify trends and report them back to the PR team. Whatever the title, the key is to develop a role that is equally facile at speaking quant and understanding the news cycle.
  • Live by the data. Data is infectious. There’s a reason why companies are collecting petabytes of the stuff on a daily basis. When you are responsible for deciding what goes on the shelves at Target, it’s nice to know that women who buy cocoa-butter lotion and zinc and magnesium supplements are also likely to buy diapers. When the PR team starts leveraging this data, it changes the dynamic with the C-suite. Suddenly, the PR staff goes from being perceived as those people who write the press releases to those people who identify nascent trends our company should be talking about. That’s a good thing, but be prepared to report results with the same quantitative rigor that got you there in the first place.

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