Tag Archives: big data

Will future PR execs need to be data-scientists?

The Big Data hype is finally at an end, according to analyst firm Gartner, which recently announced that the term has been dropped from its 2015 technology hype cycle. This means that the idea is no longer considered new and shiny, but is now just another part of the general technological landscape.

What does this mean for the PR industry? We’ve been talking about Big Data for a few years now, but it seems as though we’re still not entirely sure about how it fits into what we do. Any significantly sized business will generate a huge amount of data from across its various operations, and the task of finding actionable intelligence hidden inside it all is not to be underestimated.

Some companies are leading the way in showing what value Big Data can deliver, as Sophie Warnes, a data scientist at H+K Strategies explains: “Companies like Amazon and Netflix use data science on a daily basis. They have algorithms to determine whether you’re going to want to buy something, or what films and TV shows you might want to watch next. Giving people brilliant recommendations like this will build affinity and customer loyalty. That’s the kind of insight that could only be brought into those companies by data scientists, and as brands wise up to this, it make sense for PR agencies to pre-empt that need and start offering data science and insights as an additional service for clients.”

So is it reasonable to expect all PR people to add Data Science to their skillset? I don’t think so. Larger businesses and agencies are already investing in specialist resources, building teams that are focused on data science, which demonstrates a growing understanding that it really needs to be treated as a separate skillset.

PR consultants are already expected to master a broad selection of skills, and it seems unrealistic to expect everybody to become instant domain-experts every time there’s a new technological development which impacts the industry.

The good news is that Big Data is gradually becoming more and more accessible to a wider audience, not just data scientists. If you follow the tech press you might have noticed a growing number of stories about things like Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning, technologies which have quietly been making huge leaps in recent years.

The result of these developments will be that we move from tools which help us analyse past events, to those which will assist with predicting future outcomes. For example, today’s tools can track what is being said in social media right now, and to analyse historical data to understand how people reacted to previous campaigns or events.

This is currently where data scientists can be invaluable to PR, using tools such as ours to mine for hidden meaning in the oceans of social media data. But a new generation of tools will use AI to automatically make recommendations for different campaign approaches based on the data, spotting patterns and connecting the dots in ways that humans are simply incapable of.

If this sounds like pie-in-the-sky future gazing, it is not. These technologies are already here, and the marketing-tech industry is working hard to build them into its existing platforms. What this means for the PR industry is that data scientists will be able to offer far more certainty and precision when predicting campaign outcomes. It also means that where there is no access to data science skills, the software will be able to do a lot of the hard work, making it easier for all PR consultants to make sense of big data.

Big Data and PR explained simply enough for your granny understand

big data in PR
Big Data lives here, in data centres, not on a digital-PR guru’s iPad.

Almost everything that happens in the developed world is tracked by computers these days.

Businesses record very detailed information about how, what, where and when their customers buy from them, how well their staff perform, how their supply chain works, what products get returned the most, which special offers work best on different days of the week, and so on. Everything that happens in that business, no matter how trivial, gets recorded on a computer somewhere.

The same is true of the public sector: national government, local government, law enforcement, military, healthcare, education – everything that happens within those organisations is tracked digitally.*

All of this tracking, monitoring and measuring creates a vast ocean of information, which is what we call Big Data.

Most of the Big Data in the world doesn’t even come from tracking human behaviour in this way, it’s ‘machine generated’. Think about smart-meters used to monitor your energy or water consumption sending data to the utility provider’s computers, or all of the machines in a factory reporting their performance data to a central computer. There are thousands of different situations in which machines generate and record data about their activities.

So what?

Because we now have so much data about the many different ways the world around us works, we can analyse that data to look for interesting patterns. Businesses can find hidden patterns which will help them spot opportunities to save money or sell more; the data might reveal previously unnoticed patterns in the way people buy certain products, or inefficiencies in the way the rest of the business operates.

Likewise, in the public sector Big Data can be used to find better ways to manage traffic, cut crime or allocate healthcare resources by spotting hidden patterns in the information that wouldn’t otherwise be obvious.

Big data can mean big money, businesses are investing a lot in the technology and skills required to store and analyse their ever increasing data-sets, to discover the potentially valuable hidden patterns. But it’s not easy, Big Data requires high end hardware and software, so you need people who have the skills to manage that side of things, but you also need people who understand how to properly analyse it all, and these ‘data scientists’ are in high demand.

How does PR fit into all of this?

It kind of doesn’t. In PR circles “Big Data” isn’t really much more than a buzzword that a lot of agencies are using to make themselves sound more innovative. But in truth, very few PR people have access to their client’s Big Data sets, much less have the ability to do anything with them – we’re talking about a highly specialised and quite expensive area that is beyond the reach of most PR people.

Within large businesses that are investing in Big Data, it’s usually going to be happening quite far up the marketing food-chain, and PR involvement is likely to be minimal at this stage.

There is, potentially, some mileage in using Big Data insights to inform PR campaigns, but the cost involved in obtaining those insights would far outweigh the kind of budgets typically found in the PR world. More likely that the high-level marketing function will develop strategies based on Big Data insights, and call upon PR to execute elements of those strategies.

For now, at least, the simple truth is that PR has no real claim on Big Data, and most of the claims floating around the industry are little more than smoke and mirrors.


*Many western governments now make a lot of that information public – this is called Open Data.