It’s Not the Numbers, It’s the Context

John Roderick
John Roderick

Is big data turning American executives into wimps? Have the barnstorming, manage-from-the-gut days of leaders like Bob Lutz and Jack Welch gone the way of the V8 engine and the incandescent light bulb? In an era when an algorithm can weigh the risks, optimize the upside and improve the statistical odds of success, who needs instincts anymore?

We all do. And perhaps now more than ever.

Big data is everywhere. According to Gartner, big data will drive $3.8 trillion in new IT spending this year, as more and more companies are drawn into the idyllic promise of foolproof decision making and rock-solid predictive analytics. But big data can’t do everything.

At some point, no matter how sophisticated your data, a human being is going to need to interpret it and take action based on that view.

Too often, that process is resulting in a state of analysis paralysis, in which no one can make a decision.

For communications professionals whose job is to position original ideas and groundbreaking discoveries, one of the biggest challenges presented by the big data revolution may be its tendency to reduce bold decisions and heroic ideas to spreadsheet-style reports that are interpreted by committee. Worse, the reliance on “evidence-based decision-making” can result in a culture of media aversion among executives who are reluctant to have a strong view without irrefutable data to support it.


In some ways this is a good thing. As I’ve written previously, big data can be an enormously powerful tool for PR pros.

With the power to capture the complex interrelationship among consumer sentiment, behavioral patterns, historical correlations and forward-looking probabilities, big data kicks off the kinds of insightful, empirical sound bites journalists love.

But the process of extracting these sound bites from the petabytes of data many companies now produce on a daily basis is still much more of an art than a science. Getting senior managers comfortable with that art is becoming a critical skill for communications professionals.

In our work helping companies tap their big-data spigots for prescient, media-friendly insights, we’ve run into our fair share of roadblocks and—during the course of bumping our way through them—we’ve managed to learn a few things about what works and what doesn’t.

Here are some of the insights we’ve picked up along the way:

It’s OK to extrapolate. Data is nothing without context. There is a dangerous temptation when working with big data—and the types of PhDs and data scientists who own these databases—to look for every answer in the data itself. But a compelling story rooted in data analysis is rarely ever as clean as A+B=C.

The beauty of big data is that it is complex and textured, giving those who interpret it the ability to apply their own knowledge of the subject matter to the statistical analysis.

In a perfect world, it is real-world expertise, amplified by big data, which steals the show, not the data all by itself. Executives need to get comfortable saying: ”We looked at the data, and based on that, we believe _______. Here’s why…”

Every company is a data company. Translating big data insights into media-friendly content is a lot of work. It takes programming resources to extract the data, analytic capabilities to interpret it, design and copywriting skills to package it and senior management support to discuss it with external audiences. That can be a big investment for a company that doesn’t immediately appreciate the value of its data as a communications tool.

But the fact is every company is a data company. Want to show the world how innovative you are? Want to be the thought leader in your space? Want to claim mindshare from your competitors?

The proof is in the data you’ve been collecting to help you drive innovation, spark new ideas and capture mindshare. It’s time to start showing rather than telling the world that.

Consider all stakeholders. Not every observation that comes out of a deep analysis of customer behavioral patterns is fit for mass consumption. This is a particularly sensitive issue when dealing with large, multinational companies that serve a wide variety of stakeholders, some of whom may have competing business interests.

If, for example, an analysis of offshore investment patterns by large companies revealed holes in a government policy while the federal government was funding grants for another part of your business, you may want to think twice about visibility on that particular topic. Or, at least, give the government sales team a head’s up before you release anything.

Link your communications initiative to core business strategy. It should go without saying that any external communications effort should be linked to core business strategy, whether it includes a big data component or not.

But there’s something about big data that sometimes makes PR pros drunk with storytelling potential. Imagine a bunch of people who tell stories for a living getting their hands on data that can show pharmaceutical use patterns down to the city block.

While it might be interesting to know Viagra use, per zip code, it won’t necessarily reinforce anyone’s core value proposition.

Like pretty much everything in PR, even black-and-white data turns gray very quickly once it becomes part of a brand’s external communications strategy. The key is not to run away from that slice of uncertainty that exists between hard data and gut instinct.

Great data-based communications campaigns embrace the gray area as an opportunity for interpretation, a means of expanding the dialogue to get people talking.

Sidebar: Embrace Your Inner Quant

Not a quant? Not a problem. Creative folks can play in the big data sandbox, too. Although most of us in the world of professional communications did not get there playing with numbers, the ability to shape a narrative that uses stats as a backbone can actually unlock a level of creativity that’s hard to find anywhere else.

By following a few simple rules, data can actually become a catalyst to creativity:

The story is the master, data points are subordinate. Just because you’re working with data doesn’t mean you don’t also need a clear narrative to illustrate it. While data will create proof points for that narrative, a good story arc will always drive effective communications.

Trust your instincts. The PR team can often be the last line of defense between a set of fascinating observations and a potentially embarrassing headline. If the story doesn’t make intuitive sense to you, it won’t make sense to the rest of the world either. Ask questions before you start pitching the press.

Train your teams to collaborate. The people who analyze the data and the people charged with making the company look good in the press may not understand what each other do for a living. Spend the time educating the quants on the kinds of information you’re looking for; interview them on what they can do; brainstorm new ideas. Collaboration is the key to making this kind of campaign sustainable.


John 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].

This article originally appeared in the August 4, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.