The Impending Data Deluge

(CC) Courtesy akash_k

I recently returned from the PRSA International Conference in Washington, D.C. (full disclosure: I am employed by PRSA), where much of the focus was on social media and enhancing the strategic value of public relations. What struck me most about the sessions was how few of them were geared toward the once-hot topics of “Social Media is Great!,” or “This Social Media Thing is A Fad.” Instead, a majority focused on a similar theme: “Social media has revitalized the PR profession . . . now what do we do with all of this data?!

That strikes at the heart of the next great movement for public relations. The need to understand, analyze and utilize the vast array of data, sentiment analysis and other metrics gathered from social media.

This very question is what some of my smart buddies in the business—folks like Jeff Esposito and Rebecca Denison—are actively researching and experimenting with right now. Just how, exactly, do we efficiently make sense of and utilize this great new data about consumer sentiment, brand affinity and corporate reputation (much of it coming to us in real-time)?

It’s a question I certainly don’t have the answer to at the moment. While at the PRSA International Conference, I got a palpable sense that, while yes, there are still some who haven’t quite embraced the power of social media (and we have to accept that some never will), for most, their focus has now shifted toward making the most of this immensely powerful medium.

It’s why I predict that within the next three to five years, specialists who understand the role that data analysis can play in shaping and influencing consumer behavior will have a powerful and beneficial role in public relations.

Some in the field believe that we should all have a basic understanding of this type of data-meets-consumer-sentiment/influence analysis capabilities. And while I agree with that sentiment, I think we’re underestimating just how powerful and overwhelming this data will become, and how much influence—if used and understand properly—it will yield for companies.

For most of us, that requires an expertise and specialty that we simply can’t acquire unless we’re specifically trained to do so.

Much like the movement within journalism of having once-great programmers become digital journalists (see: Taylor Buley at Forbes and Nick Bilton at The New York Times), one of the best things that could come to public relations in the next five years would be a movement within agencies toward hiring and developing a new type of practitioner; one who is an expert in data analysis and also has a firm understanding in consumer behavior and the power of strategic communications.

And that shouldn’t necessarily come from even the best of today’s digital PR pros. This will require an entirely new breed of data-first, PR-second professionals.

What do you think? Am I off my rocker, or do you, too, foresee the need for new PR professionals, specifically trained in data analysis, in the profession?

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  • Interesting thoughts, but not sure current state matches desired state with enough similarities making desired state even possible. As much as it would be rewarding to find more PR professionals well-versed in the data and analytics of generating conversations–or even just pushing monologues–it’s not within the DNA of agency life.

    While there will always be pockets of agencies or individuals who truly embrace the understanding and engagement inherent within the data, the stark reality is that it’s not a current skill set and agency structure does not have a business ROI (read: growth, profitability) to invest accordingly.

    Well before the advent of social media and its companion set of data, PR has always had access to data sets — anyone besides @kdpaine remember the need and niche of the Delahaye group? Sadly, most of that data was passive, used to prove a single point and then put on a shelf to collect dust. During that time, PR folks did not develop a sub-speciality in data or analytics … it wasn’t needed, wanted or rewarded.

    Don’t misread me, it’s valuable. It’s just not valued in current state.


    • That’s a really good point, Marian, regarding the desired vs. current state. I’m right there with you thinking how great it would be if new PR professionals came into the business with the education background and mindset of a data-centric employee, but yeah, I just don’t see it happening in the near future for the reasons you wisely state in your comment.

      It would be great, though, if it did come to fruition because I think we’re coming to an inflection point where the data, particularly from social media campaigns, is going to start to overwhelm us (if it hasn’t already). And if that’s the case, doesn’t that data essentially become useless, sitting on our virtual shelves somewhere, collecting dust because our agencies, companies, etc. don’t have the collective resources to properly handle and understand what the data are telling them?

      I guess we’ll see how the coming data deluge plays out.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      • Karen

        Great post. Even though it doesn’t reflect the reality of current staffing opportunities, it’s nice to discuss what could be.

        Can we try to define what the “education background and mindset of a data-centric employee” might be? As members of PRSA, what skills do you think would be most valuable for individuals to bring to this position?

        As a PR/advertising undergraduate student several years ago, my curriculum had one (required) communications research class. I took it and loved it, and then I found myself looking for this elusive data-driven PR opportunity you speak of. I sought direction from industry professionals, my coworkers during internships, and my professors. Their advice and answers varied WIDELY– try an MBA (after working for 5-10 years, of course), get a PhD and teach if you like data, and one person even suggested an advanced degree in library science. This was a few years ago, but it was clear to me that there was no ‘best’ way to become competitive in a field that only exists in the future.

        I think there is a great opportunity for someone to build credibility here. Who will step forward and train these specialists? Is there a university degree or a company development program out there known for producing creative data analysts? I haven’t heard of any with a reputation of being the best… so, is there someone out there setting standards?

        • Thanks for your very thoughtful post, Karen. Those are some fantastic questions, and while I certainly don’t have the answers to all of them, I’ll do my best to offer my perspective:

          Regarding an attempt at defining what the “education background and mindset of a data-centric employee” might be, my thoughts on this stem from what I have seen in the journalism business, where several major publications (Forbes, NYT, WIRED, etc.) have taken former programmers at the publication (in the case of Nick Bilton of The Times, who previously worked in a programming job for NYT, and is now the paper’s Bits Blog editor), or have combined the role of reporter/blogger with that of a data-focused programmer (Taylor Buley at Fobes) that essentially has his job defined by studying data of what is and is not working on the editorial side and tries to find ways to improve his craft and that of his colleagues through the data.

          While I’m not sure if there is one clear-cut definition of this because I do agree with other comments on this post that it will largely be dependent upon the situation, client needs, org needs, etc., my definition might come down to this (completely oversimplified, I admit): A data-centric PR profession is one who comes from a background that combines a strong understanding and utilization in data analysis with knowledge and expertise in the core practices of public relations, social media and communications.

          essentially, someone who heavily uses data to enhance their core practices in PR and comms.

          As for who will step forward and train these professionals, the three previous commenters to this post (Marian, Chuck and Katie) are some of the best I know of in the profession, and each has taken a proactive role in educating and training themselves, their staff and others on best practices in data- and analysis-driven PR.

          One great young professional who has taken an active role on this front is Rebecca Denison (@rebeccadenison), who works for Edelman Digital in Chicago. she’s a frequent PRBC contributor, and has written a number of great posts on the topic of PR measurement, analytics and data-driven campaigns.

          Here are some of Rebecca’s post on the topic:

  • Keith –

    I see this as a little bit of chicken and the egg… I’m not sure the abundance of social data leads to a more data-focused PR professional. Why would it? Even if it did, would they know what they are looking at? Would they know how to pull out the insights? Would they know how to incorporate social data with search data with Web traffic information? What about with offline data? What about incorporating findings with their traditional media dashboards? I think you are seeing my point here…

    The PR pro must want to go there… the data cant lead them there. But, we’re not talking about a small problem. I do a fair amount of speaking to colleges/universities (most recently to the students at USC), and I talked for the entire 3 hours about the importance of social data. They eventually warmed, but how many of them are running to find a dataset from social media interactions that they can engage with? Not many. Do they need to be thinking that way? Absolutely. Will they? TBD.

    By the way, one place where I’d disagree with Marian’s comment a little is on the current skill set and agency structure idea. The smart agencies, I’d like to think the one I work for (and lead analytics for as it turns out), are investing in developing as robust an analytics program as can possibly be mustered. Why? It certainly isn’t because there is an abundance of smart (who I’d consider smart — call that arrogant if you will) people doing PR/social media analytics. No, it’s actually what clients want — particularly large brands.

    One last thing… the era of decisions made without the backing of numbers is over. Unfortunately, I think it will come to social media marketers before it comes to PR pros. Looking forward to continuing the discussion.

    • Thanks for chiming in with your insight and perspective, Chuck. I see what you’re saying early in your comment regarding the fact that most PRs just aren’t actively out there seeking a data-focused career, but my response to that would be that’s precisely why we, as a profession, should be thinking more in terms of how journalism is now taking great developers/hackers and helping them turn into data-focused journalists.

      Can we do the same on the PR side? I honestly don’t know, but that concept was the genesis for my whole point of trying to find a way to develop data-first, PR-second professionals. I would love to see it develop, and quite honestly, if I were coming up as a new pro now (or more specifically, if I were still in school), I’d love to have this type of data-first approach to PR taught in my courses and ingrained in me as the new path within the profession.

      Unfortunately, like you and Marian, I’m not quite seeing it happen … yet.

      But like you also point out, there are a lot of great, innovative agencies and internal folks out there who are taking it upon themselves to at least develop some type of hybrid professional that understands, respects and is passionate about data and also does the same for the other necessary PR skill sets.

      Personally, I can’t wait to see if/when this concepts plays out within the profession. My belief is that if the profession, as a whole, doesn’t address this more clearly at some point, there is going to be a real data deluge issue. And that’s when PR starts to lose credibility and status again among service industries.

  • Wow, thanks Marian for remembering Delahaye. I’m embarassed to think how long ago — 23 years now — that I started ranting about the need for data-driven PR. Amazing how many of those basic prinicples are still being used today. Just on a slightly different type of media, but nothing that different. As I keep saying YES WE CAN (and have been for more than two decades) measure PR!

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