On the Horizon: Unleashing the Power of Big Data in Public Relations

October 13, 2016


Practically speaking, public relations is a relationship business built on creativity, people skills and the ability to communicate effectively through compelling content.

Research plays an increasingly important role by informing the PR process to help improve performance and generate value. Through the emergence of new research methods and advanced technologies — coupled with the accelerated pace of business — a new form of public relations is emerging where statistics spark creativity, data drive more fully integrated communications and tools enable people to act more quickly and with greater intelligence.

For PR pros and companies who employ us, the driving force is known collectively as big data. In this new landscape, communicators must evolve along with the profession to harness the science beneath the art of public relations.

Transforming business and PR

Big data is often defined by the four “Vs”: volume, velocity, variety and value. The amount of data and its granularity describe the volume of data, which can vary from tens of terabytes to hundreds of petabytes for an organization. The speed of data an organization receives and acts upon in real time defines velocity. The variety of unstructured, structured and semi-structured data affects how organizations might analyze its information. And the value of data organizations is defined by the extent to which they derive meaning, recognize patterns and make informed decisions. In its early stages, organizations focus on the amount of data, but in time the questions around big data shift from the size of data to its importance, the quality of decisions it enables and the value derived from the data itself.

The concept of big data — advanced technology that allows large volumes of data to drive more fully integrated decision-making — is transforming the world of business, and within it, public relations. Practitioners must evolve with this transformation by applying big data onto traditional PR functions. In such cases, communicators harness the data to spark even greater creativity, hone their people skills and improve their effectiveness. Contrary to what many may think, big data enhances the creative process by focusing our ingenuity where it will do the most good.

Characterizing data

Big data is characterized by a collection of data sets too large for common business software tools to capture, manage and process, so it can deliver data sets that are large, dynamic and diverse.

At the same time, big data is composed of many small data streams, of which PR statistics is one example. Big data may represent external economic, financial and societal/lifestyle trends along with internal data detailing sales, costs, staffing and other statistics. Widely accessible sources like census data, organizational websites and industry data may also contribute.
Each function within the enterprise maintains data that serve the needs of that function. Much of the data generated for, by and about public relations comes through research based on the measures of outputs, outtakes and outcomes.

  • Outputs: information that PR departments produce disseminates with resulting media coverage seeking to affect the target audience
  • Outtakes: inferences audiences draw from or respond to via PR outputs
  • Outcomes: changes within the minds and behavior of the target audience as measured by awareness, understanding, preferences and behavior

In big data situations, public relations’ unique contribution relates to content and context, which are measured in several ways including media analysis, focus groups and surveys.

Uncovering insights

The purpose of harnessing big data is to uncover actionable insights that lead to better decisions which, in turn, help the organization achieve its objectives. But insights require more than data.

Perhaps due to the proliferation of automated tools promising insights, organizations rushed to the big data trough only to come up dry. Dr. Philip B. Stark, professor and chair of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, identified the three elements that must be present to convert data to insights:

  1. Critical thinking and statistical acumen
  2. Subject-matter expertise
  3. Access to tools

“The type of data isn’t the point at all. The way of thinking matters,” Stark said. His statement reveals the key component in successful big data programs: the human element. While tools and data help provide structure and context, insights are a purely human endeavor.

Moving beyond traditional communications

The biggest opportunities for public relations involve moving past traditional communications approaches to create better objectives and more-strategic positioning and audience targeting, and to uncover more opportunities to quantify and enhance public relations’ contribution to business success — even predicting which combinations of markets, timing, assets and tactics will yield the best outcome.

Big data are evolving traditional PR functions — permitting growth, greater efficiency and improved efficacy. Reviewing the traditional PR cycle, big data add extra context for success:

Landscape analysis: The landscape analysis illuminates the past and the present operating environment. Typically, the landscape analysis tracks competitive PR activity, marketplace developments and media trends. In big data situations, the landscape analysis broadens its scope beyond PR activity to include business results, general economic indicators, and societal trends, business transactions and other factors, which may be positively affected through improved communication.

Objectives: Objectives should be meaningful, measurable and reasonable. In a big data world, objectives go beyond standard communications objectives — generating a higher volume of positive impressions, raising awareness, etc. — to include goals that more directly impact business success, such as attracting and retaining top talent, lowering costs, raising prices, generating sales and drawing interest among investors.

Strategy development: The typical PR strategy-development process for positioning and targeting involves conventional audience targeting through the media they consume, the conventional wisdom of what’s worked before and pre-existing journalist/influencer relationships. In the era of big data, strategy development encompasses messaging and targeting that move prospective customers through the sales funnel, or anticipate the results of interactions among audiences, markets and messages.

Tactics: PR people use campaigns, events and short-term initiatives designed to achieve a burst in marketplace activity and to achieve their objectives. Big data PR tactics are developed in light of the potential for business impact.

Evaluation: Big data PR evaluation repurposes media analysis and surveys to understand the relationship between the two when combined with other agents. Communication data scientists evaluate performance with purpose to enhance public relations’ impact on any number of meaningful business factors — including revenue — while minimizing risk.

Providing the greatest value

Given the success and publicity around big data, one might think that it can solve the world’s problems. Why the hype? For all the good derived from big data, traps loom for those who mistakenly believe correlation means causality or that top-line group-level data apply to all individuals within the group.

The most limiting aspect of big data — and the area in which public relations can provide the greatest value — is that data alone do not answer “why?” For that, social and traditional media analysis provides context to go beyond just “what happened?” to derive why it happened and what should be done about it.

Ask these questions before embarking on big data for a PR initiative:

  • What are your communications goals and how will the data help achieve your objectives?
  • What is the source of data?
  • How is big data already being applied within the organization and how can you take advantage?
  • Does the PR team have critical thinking and statistical-analysis skills?
  • Are tools available to capture relevant content to produce accurate data?
  • Is there an environment that encourages discovery and learning through data (rather than data as a scorecard)?
  • How much investment is needed? Do the results merit the investment?

While creativity, people skills and communications continue to play important roles in contemporary public relations, the addition of technology, data and critical thinking has changed the way it is practiced and how we define it.

The accelerated pace of business, the digitization of media and the need for companies to deliver more and better results for less have irreversibly changed public relations from a business of relationships to a business of terabytes. Public relations now requires practitioners to create a compelling headline just as well as they can manage a pivot table.

It’s been said that the dinosaurs would be here today if they could only have predicted the weather. For PR pros, the winds of change are blowing. Those who adapt will succeed while those who ignore the emerging importance of technology, science and data in public relations will sadly disappear.

Mark Weiner is the chief executive of PRIME Research Americas, a research-based consulting firm delivering big data solutions to communicators at many of the world’s great companies and brands.

Sarab Kochhar, Ph.D., is the director of research for the Institute for Public Relations and the associate director of measurement and analytics for APCO Worldwide. Email: sarab@instituteforpr.org. Twitter: @sarabkochhar.


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