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?