Many have commented on Paul Holmes's call to put "big data at the center." Paul is one of the luminaries of our industry, and I agree with him completely on this point. However, I would broaden it to include data in general. PR needs to be information- and insight-driven whether the data driving this information and insight is big or little.
It strikes me that putting "big data at the center" is easier said than done. Big data is undoubtedly a marvelous resource, but aside from all the issues around the data itself (formatting, accessibility, processing, etc.), it still is only a mass of data. The trick to making it useful is determining useful ways to query the data, or determining useful hypotheses to test using the big data sets you have at hand. The skills required to do this are not common, so Paul's suggestion that agencies should have chief data officers is also right on target.
Returning now to these queries or hypotheses that will make big data useful, they will most often come from outside the big data. They may be hunches or they may be well reasoned based on other research, but they will be stem from the basic questions that have always driven business and communications. Questions such as:
- Who are our stakeholders?
- What do we need them to do?
- How do they feel about us and our products and services?
- Why do they feel that way?
- What is going on in the world that is going to affect how they feel about us?
- What can we do to encourage them to do the things they need to do for our organization to succeed?
- How and why will that benefit them?
- What are the best ways (media) to communicate with them?
- What are our competitors doing and how is that affecting our stakeholders?
One question I left out, and which big data may be best able to answer is "How are our stakeholders behaving now?" This of course leads to all the questions about how we might want them to change and what we can do to encourage that.
The answers to questions like these can lead to communications programs that not only are highly effective, but that are demonstrably so. This would be good for PR.
However, while big data may have answers to some of the questions above, it is more likely that the organizations we work for do. And we should seek that data first. If it exists, it almost certainly will be easier to obtain and more relevant than any big data out there. So I suggest looking for the smaller data first.