How PR Can Feed the Data Journalism Pipeline

Beth Monaghan 

In 1999, I was 12 years and many infographics away from hearing the term, “data journalism.” However, I first understood its power that year while mired in network management acronyms and working with my now-business partner, Meg O’Leary. Our goal? Bring an extremely successful but technical company to the attention of the business press.

At the time, road rage was a national obsession. We borrowed the idea and applied it to PC users, coining the term “network rage.” It turned out that 83% of network managers reported “abusive and often violent behavior by users as a result of computer problems.” Suddenly, the company was doing appearances on Good Morning America.

What is data journalism? Many equate it to data visualization. I think this is a mistake. The infographic craze is certainly still in full swing (but many, including Adweek, think we are at the point of overload). Data journalism is much broader. It hinges on mining a company’s proprietary data, or conducting third-party research, to illuminate a unique insight into its market. 

At a time when technology product launches are falling flat, data journalism has the potential to fuel the entire PR pipeline—from media coverage, to content marketing, to speaking engagements, to product validation and more. Thought leadership is at the heart of content marketing. However, the clamor for claiming a corner in the awareness market hinges on rooting an executive’s point of view in authority. Data provides that authority. And unlike almost every other tool at our disposal, a single data point directed at the right audience is the fastest conduit between interest, engagement and content sharing. 

Virtually every company has the ability to mine its data, but many lack the ability, time, interest or focus. It’s an understandable challenge. In 2010, The Economist reported that Wal-Mart alone handled “more than a million customer transactions every hour, feeding databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes—the equivalent of 167 times the books in America’s Library of Congress.”

Yet, if a company can mine through its vast data sets, the PR rewards can be tremendous. InkHouse client Art Papas, the CEO of Bullhorn, which provides solutions for the HR and recruiting industries, says, “Every company interacts with its customers and learns something about its market. If you’re providing unique value to customers, you can’t help but be sitting on a unique insight. Companies are just waking up to this as a tactic, and now we’re inundated with it.” 

Not every piece of data is going to catapult a company to The Today Show or USA Today. Finding the right data point to lead with requires a nose for news. It is the PR practitioner’s number one job. For example, did you know that the unhappiest worker in the U.S. is a single, 42-year-old female who works in a professional setting and has no children? Did you know that in November 2011, the top 200 ranked free iPhone apps in the U.S. had an aggregate volume of 5.65 million downloads (per day!)? Or that 79% of workers take work-related devices with them on vacation? 

These three examples are from some of our own client campaigns. In each case, the data rooted the company’s core business in authority, and situated it within a major trend of importance. For the unhappiest worker survey, Captivate Network, a digital media company that delivers news and information to on-the-go professionals, was looking to serve as the definitive source of data on the white-collar worker. For the happiest worker survey, which is part of a quarterly campaign, we secured hundreds of placements, including Yahoo News, the Huffington Post,, Men's Health, HolyKaw, The Today Show and the Detroit Free Press.

The iPhone data provided an important platform for Fiksu, a mobile app loyal user growth platform, which enjoys regular coverage of its indexes in TechCrunch, GigaOm and ReadWriteWeb. And for Neverfail, which provides disaster recovery and business continuity software, demonstrating the reliance on mobile data availability was an important part of communicating the need for 24/7 business availability. The survey generated media coverage in outlets from Businessweek to The Wall Street Journal and Peter Greenberg’s travel blog. 

As I mentioned, not all data is created equal. A successful data journalism initiative hinges on the following:

  • Valid data. SurveyMonkey, while useful in many cases, won’t cut it with the press. The data must come from a company’s proprietary data set, or from a respected third-party data provider.

  • Unique insight. If it’s already been done, your data may fall flat. Do your research and determine what already exists. You need to find the runway of opportunity where your data can make a difference.

  • Broad implications. If your goal is to reach a targeted audience within your industry, keep your focus narrow. However, if you want to broaden your story to the business and or consumer press, think about what data points will resonate. USA Today will not care about the percentage of server failures last year. They will care about how many people lost access to their mobile devices. 

  • Repeatable model. To sustain interest, your data must be repeatable (for example, the Fiksu indexes are issued monthly and benchmark month-over-month trends). Find data points that will demonstrate change over time. For some, a monthly report might be too frequent to show meaningful change. Remember, if this month’s data shows exactly the same information as last month’s, few reporters will care. 

Beth Monaghan is principal and co-founder of InkHouse Media + Marketing, an independent PR and social media agency in the U.S. with headquarters in Waltham, Mass. You can email her at [email protected], and find her on Twitter @bamonaghan