Big Data: The Most Powerful PR Tool That Communicators Are Not Using

Remember when a good survey was the golden ticket to blockbuster nationwide headlines? Armed with a few thought-provoking stats, a decent PR team could generate ink at will in virtually every major media outlet. Alas, the days of easy survey-based PR campaigns disappeared once everyone with a blog could crank out a statistically spurious survey at zero cost, and with no formal training.

Thankfully, there is a contemporary replacement for the survey that carries the same promise of big headline potential, even in today’s fragmented media environment. It’s called Big Data, and it’s the most powerful PR tool you’re not using.

First, some background on Big Data, which has quickly become a horrendously overused term.

Ask 10 different people what it means and you’ll get 12 different answers. Hard core quants will explain Big Data as “unbounded and unstructured, imprecise but predictive.” Privacy advocates will invoke Big Brother. And C-suite execs will call it predictive analytics.

In simpler terms that will resonate with communications professionals, Big Data is really a lot like a giant survey, but better. Whereas surveys measure a single dimension—sentiment—Big Data has the power to layer multiple dimensions on top of one another to capture that sentiment, along with real-world behavioral patterns, historical correlations and forward-looking probabilities.

So, while a survey will tell you that people prefer chocolate ice cream to broccoli, Big Data will tell you that health insurance rates will rise to support increased prevalence of type II diabetes stemming from too much chocolate ice cream.

It’s no surprise, then, that businesses love Big Data for its ability to identify patterns that let them peer into the future. According to The Harvard Business Review, Wal-Mart Stores alone collects more than 2.5 “petabytes” of data every hour from its customer transactions. According to research company Gartner, Big Data will help drive $3.8 trillion in new IT spending in 2014.

Despite all of this investment, few PR professionals have gotten into the Big Data workflow.

Outside of issuing hundreds of press releases that tout the latest corporate Big Data innovation, most communications teams are not actively using Big Data to help support their communications objectives.

But a few early adopters have begun to blaze a path of best practices.


Paul Walsh, VP of weather analytics at The Weather Co., the corporate parent of The Weather Channel, has been using Big Data to make headlines for the last decade.

His magic formula: Keep it simple. Walsh’s day job involves helping corporate clients anticipate the impact of weather on their bottom line.

That means interpreting long- and short-range weather forecasts and factoring their possible impact to drive everything from ad targeting to retail strategy. In the world of quantitative modeling, this is very technical stuff.

Walsh has managed to turn it into must-see TV in regular media appearances by translating the technical details into more palatable concepts like a “Sweater Weather Index.” “Retailers have a few key shopping weeks every fall when they can sell their seasonal lineups at top dollar,” he said. “If it happens to be unseasonably warm in October, for example, that can crush same store sales figures for apparel retailers. With the Sweater Weather Index, we were able to combine historical sales patterns across the U.S. with weather forecasts for major cities during peak shopping weeks to project, not just the weather, but the impact of that weather on a big part of the economy.”


In any large organization, the task of accessing and interpreting Big Data falls to a team of PhDs and analysts who are genetically predisposed to embrace complexity. PR pros spend their days trying to simplify. Someone needs to step in to help these two opposites attract.

Cathy Irwin is senior director of marketing at Truven Health Analytics, a company that lives and breathes Big Data.

The company maintains the world’s largest database of health insurance claims data, arms nurses and physicians with clinical decision support systems and helps government agencies root out healthcare fraud. To help translate that data for external audiences, Irwin instituted a company-wide “Truven fact” initiative.

"Our brand is focused entirely on giving healthcare industry professionals the facts and context they need to make critical healthcare decisions, but our external communications were not meeting that same standard,” Irwin said.

She added: “By challenging everyone in the organization, from the C-suite to sales and marketing, to only make claims that we could support with hard data, we’ve really transformed the way we communicate to reflect who we are as a company.”

Irwin’s fact-based initiative has gone beyond press releases. In the last year the company’s insights on healthcare have been featured prominently in The New York Times ’ “Paying Till it Hurts” series of articles focusing on the rising cost of healthcare, as well as in an ongoing content partnership with NPR.


One of the central challenges of PR is translating company claims and brand attributes into the kinds of facts that warrant press coverage. Big Data can help that process by providing a multidimensional perspective that is rooted in empirical fact.

That’s a powerful PR tool; it’s up to us to unlock its incredible potential. PRN


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJohn Roderick is president of J. Roderick Inc., a New York-based PR agency. Follow him on Twitter, @john_roderick, and at He can be reached at [email protected].


Data Powered, Owned Media

Owned media is simultaneously one of the greatest gifts and biggest sources of anxiety for today’s PR professional. While blogs, social channels, LinkedIn groups and company websites can get your message directly to a target audience without ever having to pick up a phone to pitch a journalist, the content-creation burden can be a real manpower challenge.

Big data can help. With the ability to inform infographics, power whitepapers and arm executives with endless sound bites, a single interesting data point can be sliced and diced for multiple audiences across several media platforms.

Clayton McGratty, VP of communications at Tradeweb Markets, a global provider of electronic fixed income and derivatives marketplaces, has driven a database approach to content development across his company’s multiple external communications platforms. His ammunition comes from the huge volume of trading data that’s passing through Tradeweb every day, from composite government bond prices and yield changes to notional volume in derivatives markets. McGratty offered the following insights into his company’s data-related program:

“By tapping into our aggregate data, we’re able to power media relations activities, increase our active presence on channels like Twitter and continually produce fresh content,” he said.

There are some important rules to the road, he added, when implementing a content initiative rooted in data:

Think three-dimensionally: Every piece of information a company releases will have an impact on its customers, its broader market segment and the press. Each of those will be best served with a different approach; that’s an opportunity to create new forms of targeted content.

• Don’t overreach: Data tells us lots of things, but it doesn’t tell us everything. It’s important to resist the urge to draw overly simplistic or sensationalized conclusions just to make an impact.

Sweat the details: If you’re going to position yourself as a reliable source of timely facts, you have an enormous responsibility to get those facts right. — J.R.

This article originally appeared in the February 3 issue of PR News.