PR’s Key Role in Managing Big Data

John Roderick
John Roderick

The Siren song of Big Data is hard to ignore. With the right algorithm, communicators can track every click and eye movement, every behavioral tick and anomaly, and use that to target messages with pinpoint accuracy, right? Well, sort of.

The promise of Big Data is slowly giving birth to a generation of metrics-driven PR professionals who have embraced stats and trend lines as powerful story telling devices. It’s also spawned a new breed of data journalism that can pose serious challenges for PR and marketing teams.

First, the good side of Big Data. Big Data can be the key to translating abstract concepts into the kinds of concrete facts that warrant substantial news coverage.

Consider the groundbreaking Wall Street Journal series this April tracking Medicare payments to doctors. The first story in the series dug into the Medicare database to find that just 1% of doctors accounted for 14% of total payments from Medicare.

The Journal even developed a Web-based tool for consumers to type in their own doctors’ names and find out how much Medicare revenue they earned for the year. The story, which was subsequently cited by virtually every news outlet in the country, was the result of a two-year legal battle during which time Dow Jones & Co. fought for—and won—access to Medicare’s physician-level billing data, opening up one of the world’s biggest Big Data repositories to journalists for the first time.


But it also exposed the dark side of Big Data. Following outcry from physicians, the Journal ran a follow-up story the next day citing the limitations of the data used in its analysis.

One example included a family medicine doctor in Michigan who was among those with the highest reimbursement rates; not because she is perpetrating healthcare fraud, but because she reimburses other doctors as part of a special demonstration program overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Journal example illustrates Big Data’s double-edged sword. While the macro trend in Medicare payment data made for an irresistible headline, the devil in the details quickly exposed the kinds of shortcomings that can compromise reputation.


It’s a lesson Target learned the hard way in 2012, when The New York Times Magazine ran a story about how the retailer had become so adept at analyzing its customer data that it could tell when a teenaged girl was pregnant, even before her parents knew and long before she ever started buying diapers.

Citing a detailed interview with Target statistician Andrew Pole, the Times story explained that by tracking purchase patterns Target knew that when a female customer started buying supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc (along with scent-free soap and extra-large bags of cotton balls), she would soon be a candidate for the store’s baby clothes aisle.

With this knowledge in-hand, Target could then market accordingly, ultimately helping the retailer corner the baby-products market.

The marketer in all of us looks at that and thinks, brilliant. But the consumer in us might feel creeped out at the notion of retailer tracking our every move.

And that’s exactly what happened after the Times story was published, ushering in a landslide of articles with headlines like “When Big Data Becomes Big Brother” and “How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.”

While the Big Data analytics that made these findings possible have been very good for Target’s bottom line, these kinds of headlines are not necessarily good for business.

What is becoming clearer in example after example of Big Data going mainstream is the need for better gatekeepers.


These are individuals within an organization whose job it is to determine whether a Big Data-driven story is going to be the next big thing or a risk that’s not worth taking.

Increasingly, that job is falling to PR executives, who need to have the foresight to be able to spot the bad angles before the story is told—and the clout to shut it down if it has the potential to do more harm than good (see sidebar).

This can be a challenging role for a communications team that has traditionally been accustomed to pitching first and asking questions later.

The real danger in Big Data-driven stories is that they are almost always really good stories. But they may not be good for your brand. The starry-eyed among us could be forgiven for thinking that a Times article about our company’s cutting-edge marketing algorithms would make us look brilliant, drive up our stock price and win praise from the C-suite.

Instead, as the Target example demonstrates, the communications team ended up with the unenviable task of trying to stop the story once it had already started.

Like any powerful tool—chainsaws, wrecking balls, sledgehammers—Big Data has the potential to generate a huge impact almost immediately, but history is littered with people who’ve got the scars to prove how dangerous it can be.

Those of us entrusted with maintaining the reputations of our companies and organizations need to approach Big Data responsibly.

Big Story or Big Fail? A PR Checklist for Vetting Big Data

Big Data can generate huge stories, but that doesn’t mean you should tell them all. Discretion is critical when identifying which angles will reflect positively on your brand and which will have an adverse effect on the very customers you’re trying to court. All communicators staring down a potential Big Data-driven story should ask themselves the following questions:

Is there a ‘Big Brother’ angle? If it wanted to, Facebook could publish all kinds of interesting studies about consumer likes and dislikes that would make marketers swoon and generate headlines throughout the world. But it doesn’t. Why? Because Facebook has fought enough privacy battles to know that it should be more concerned about privacy fears than sharing marketing insights. If there’s a risk that the audience for your Big Data story will feel violated, don’t tell that story.

Can the findings be translated for a lay audience? Data science is a science and the statisticians behind it are more focused on data volume, variety and velocity, as opposed to catchy headlines. The original output from the quants will likely need to be translated if it’s going to be used to fuel a thought-leadership initiative.

What’s the endgame? Great stories come and go. Is there real value in the Big Data story you are looking to tell? Can the findings be tied back to a core value for your company or to a particular solution you offer? Will it have a positive impact on investors? Customers? If the answer to these questions is yes, then it might make sense to take the risk. If it’s just an excuse to generate buzz for the sake of buzz, you might want to think twice.

• Who’s the boss? Some of the best stories in a good PR executive’s repertoire are those that have never seen the light of day: the salacious headline that was squashed, the leaked information that was discredited. In the event that PR need to put the brakes on a Big Data story before it is released, they may need allies internally to give them the clout they need. —J.R.


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 May 19, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.