Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Potential Value of Big Data to PR and Communications

This Blog is adapted from a comment I made on an IABC LinkedIn Discussion on Big Data, which was initiated by Natasha Nicholson. I am also indebted to comments in that discussion by Mike Jenkins and Sam Ford.

In my mind, the promise of Big Data for PR is in planning successful communications campaigns.

However, I am concerned that communications professionals are not well prepared to use Big Data. They face a number of challenges. Some are database management challenges--making the data accurate, making it inclusive and making it represent what it purports to represent. Beyond these challenges are those of coaxing meaning from the data, which are data analysis and statistical issues. For the most part, I do not believe these skills exist in communications departments or consultancies, with the possible exception of research departments.

What communications people should be able to do is ask the right questions of the data. I believe these should start with the basic questions of business and communications such as:
  • Who are my stakeholders?
  • What do they care about and why?
  • What messages are likely to resonate with them?
  • What are the best media for reaching those stakeholders with those messages?
  • What trends and issues matter to these stakeholders that may have an effect on how and how well I can communicate with them?
My last bulleted question is sometimes addressed by the folks monitoring media. So, at least we are doing that.

To summarize, I believe communications people understand communications and the questions that need to be answered to communicate effectively. However, to use Big Data to inform and drive successful communications campaigns, they need also to understand and be conversant in database management, data analysis and statistics. Beyond being conversant, they need people who can actually do these things to answer the communications questions the communicators pose.

We know that the Obama campaign effectively used Big Data to help win the presidency in 2012, but beyond that, proof points for Big Data's use and effectiveness in PR and communications are sparse, to say the least.

I expect that the first organizations to actually use Big Data effectively outside of politics will be large, well funded organizations that actually value communications and its effect on reputation (think Fortune 100 here). They will have the communications expertise and the influence to be able to draw on the database management and data analysis and statistical skills elsewhere in their organizations to put together the whole package necessary to make Big Data work for stakeholder relationship management.

Until then, what I believe communicators should do to prepare themselves to use Big Data is develop an analytical mindset. They need to start asking the questions above as well as other questions of the data they have access to. First and foremost, this would be the data in their organizations from such places as marketing, sales and HR. If their organization is using data resources in other parts of their business (for example risk management), they should learn how that data is being used and try to think of ways they might be able to adapt it to use in communications (e.g. Sam Ford's suggestions in "4 Ways to Use Data to Tell Stories," in IABC's Communications World Magazine.

For those of you who already have access to Big Data, I suggest you think analytically, jump in and swim. 


Anonymous said...

Forest, I think you are providing communicators with a good approach to working with Big Data.

Having spent a lot of years inside corporations, I'd make an addition to what you identified: Early on, the communicators must be clear on who within the organization they are going to presenting their findings to (the CMO? The CEO? The CFO? The Chief Legal Counsel? Head of Sales? etc.) and be very clear on the kind of data that most resonates with that person or audience. As individuals and function heads, they each will have a lens through which they view things and make judgments, so this needs to be taken into account.

Forrest W. Anderson said...

Thanks for your comment. I agree.

Sam Ford said...

Thanks for the reference to my IABC piece, Forrest! As I said, while I am skeptical about how data is sometimes used in decision-making (largely because of some of the analysis questions you ask here), as well as organizations who begin to think quantitative data can answer everything or who don't think through the ethical questions of how that data is gathered and used...there are also many great potentials to doing this smartly, ethically, and in the interest of the end audience. I appreciate your referencing/linking to my piece from CW! And I have enjoyed our exchanges on the subject.

Forrest W. Anderson said...

Thanks Sam. I agree with all you say about the challenges and shortcomings of big data as well as its potential.

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