How to Use Big Data Effectively

 John Roderick
John Roderick

Using data to help tell a story is not new. Rumor has it that in A.D. 600 a Maya scribe asked the king: Do you have unique data we could use to illustrate that point?

Until recently, however, data was used as a credibility tool, a proof point to corroborate a particular angle or burgeoning trend. Now, data is becoming the story. The phenomenon has been playing out recently in a data visualization battle royal between The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The Times kicked things off recently with a nine-page, 3-D view of the U.S. Treasury yield curve. The Journal responded in kind, with an animated, point-of-view tour through the history of NASDAQ bubbles that mimicked an Epcot-style roller-coaster simulator.

This golden age of data journalism is creating huge opportunities for PR teams that can convince senior managers and their clients to share salient stats that help quantify a trend and set the brand apart. But how?

You can’t just send spreadsheets to reporters and hope for the best. Based on my agency’s work, we’ve been able to establish 10 best practices for using data to build corporate thought leadership campaigns.

  1. Write a research brief. Data without context is just a bunch of numbers. The best way to give numbers context and create a collateral piece showcasing a company’s thought leadership is to package the data in a journalistic (not promotional) research brief or whitepaper summary.
  2. Write an Op-ed with teeth. Successful Op-ed placements are 50 percent great timing and 50 percent name-brand author. Great data that proves a thesis and offers new insight is the wild card that can trump both timing and name-recognition—and elevate an Op-ed to the top of the most-read lists.
  3. Create an infographic. The Times and Journal examples set the bar for infographics right now, but there are countless ways to create the kinds of charts, graphs and images that illustrate a compelling story using off-the-shelf data visualization software from companies such as Tableau, Glew and Visually.
  4. Partner with journalists. In cases where a company produces a steady stream of data—whether retail sales stats, financial market data or any other type of unique data set—it may be possible to partner with a news organization to give reporters direct access to a data feed.
  5. Develop a social media content stream. Adding numbers to a tweet results in a 17 percent increase in retweets, Twitter says. Did you see what I just did there? Stats and photos are the currency of social media: use them to stay interesting.
  6. Create a killer blog. Sites like FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot and Vox are turning the art of using data to explain the news into small media empires. Imagine what that kind of expository data could do for your corporate blog. By replacing promotional placeholder text with concrete stats, corporate bloggers can turn their sites into attractive destinations.
  7. Be controversial with protection. The best part about using data as part of a PR campaign is that it lets you address a controversial subject matter—like weak economic performance in one of your customer segments, fraud or politics—from behind the shield of objectivity and hard numbers.
  8. Segment a target audience. Data is great at drilling down into niche topics. For example, although not everyone cares about the effects of Dodd-Frank on derivatives trading volume, those who care, do so deeply. Niche stats that speak loudly to a target audience can be a hugely effective communications tool.
  9. Prove it. One of the central challenges of PR is translating company claims and brand attributes into the kinds of facts that warrant press coverage. Data can help that process by providing a multidimensional perspective that is rooted in empirical fact. Consider, for example, the new JPMorgan Chase Institute, a think tank that launched last week with the mission of combining the power of big data with information from its 30 million banking customers to provide insights on the economy. What better way to showcase the breadth of the bank than to leverage its customer data for the public good?
  10. Measure results. Live by the data, die by the data. If you’re going to use data to communicate to external audiences, prepare to leverage it for internal constituents, too, using data to measure what matters for your campaigns and company’s financial goals and objectives.

As journalists—and their editors—become increasingly reliant on finding unique ways to manipulate and illustrate with data, communications professionals who embrace their inner quants will open up new opportunities to establish thought leadership and assert their brands.

CONTACT: John Roderick is president of J. Roderick Inc., a strategic communications firm in New York. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter, @john_roderick, and read his blog,

This article originally appeared in the May 25, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.