In the mid-1960s, two US National Bureau of Standards employees warned in an article for the ACM journal of the ‘’information explosion” and how storing and handling this data would become a major challenge in the future.
Now, 50 years later, everyone is talking about the “new” big data hype and its importance for both governments and companies worldwide. However, with so many of us jumping on the bandwagon, it is time to take a look at the actual usefulness of big data, as well as its benefits and limitations - especially when it comes to public relations.
Covering the constantly-expanding world of big data can be overwhelming. Ever tried to follow the big data hashtag on Twitter? The rapid speed of updates will make your head spin. But where did that trend come from? The term was arguably coined by Gartner analyst Douglas Laney who defined big data by the growing amount of information available, the high speed at which the data is generated and processed and finally by the increasing variety of sources and types of data material.
With digital technology and new media platforms taking over, so much more information is being produced and collected, creating modern treasure boxes filled with data. Every article read online, every purchase, every transaction, every communication, every click exchange leaves a trace of information behind. With the change in the type of data becoming available to organisations, it is important to reduce or filter these datasets in order to make sense of their complexity. Imagine this to be like a digital version of IKEA self-serve warehouse, where certain data has to be picked up from a number of different shelves to analyse it and put it together to create meaningful insights. With the right tools, an appropriate understanding of statistics and computing skills, the less important noise can be blocked out and profound conclusions can be drawn from the data. The insights gained can be used to identify patterns and to make a more informed decision - for example: when, where and how to communicate.
The more dynamic the industry setting (or settings, for that matter) a company operates in, the more important it is to monitor and measure content and data, if possible in real-time, to communicate more effectively. It can help to predict and identify trends before they hit their peak in the media world. It can help to with pitching for work, because the campaigns that are being developed and the stories that are being told will be backed by substantial data. For those working in PR, it is important to understand stakeholders and if possible, how they can be brought to maintain or change a certain point of view. Using a data-driven approach it is now possible to identify opinions, how they change over time and how they affect PR activities. Analytics can also be used to assess performances and point out weak areas in a communication strategy.
Sounds great so far. Now, where are the downsides?
Many businesses still lack the capabilities for dealing with big datasets – maybe because they do not have the resources to hire someone with the right skills, maybe because they are intimidated by trying to find the needle in this haystack of information. Another reasons could be the technical issue of where to store all the information or choosing the right program for interpreting and visualising the data. Decision-makers may become frustrated because it takes hours or days to get answers to questions, if at all. Making even a minor mistake can lead to false conclusions and a lack of accuracy in predictions and it becomes more difficult to find out where an error has been made later on when big datasets are involved. While correlations between information can be detected, it still takes the sound understanding of a human element to judge which correlations are actually meaningful. Big data can be used, for example, to show a correlative relationship between the consumption of sour cream (per half-pint, if that is of interest) and the number of motorcycle riders killed in non-collisional transport accidents in the United States. Another statistic shows an alleged correlation between the number of global, non-commercial space launches and the number of sociology doctorates being awarded. Conclusions based on data suggesting two trends seem to occur at the same time should be drawn with care.
So where does this leave us?
At the end of the day, big is a trend that is here to stay – and that is good. Companies, especially PR businesses, should seriously look into the opportunities large scale information analysis has to offer them and what can be gained by making use of statistical methods. It might just be the key to unlocking a few doors in terms of stakeholder insights. Big Data should not be ignored or overlooked in decision-making in favour of an unspecific gut feeling.
However, data analytics is not yet a patent remedy and still needs careful judgement and informed handling before using it to solve problems.
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