PR and Big Data – let’s hear it for the Datum!

I’m a “data is” person.

Already I can sense that a lot of cornflakes and milk has been sprayed across the nation’s breakfast tables, as many statistical colleagues splutter in indignation and harrumph about Latin and the decline of the western world.

But then I treat data as a mass noun. And I’m not alone. It seems to have been in use this way for at least 250 years ago – “data is” has history.

Anyway, that’s all a convoluted way to my use – I think for first time seriously – of the word “datum”. A single piece of information.

We hear much of the power of Big Data.

There can be little doubt that analysing the huge amounts of data now generated may give immensely valuable insights – “spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on”, as data guru Kenneth Cukier put in it 2010.

So what does this mean for public relations? Our cousin discipline – distant, close? – in marketing has long used data. PR too. What would some practitioners do without commissioning opinion and attitude surveys to achieve their goals?

And, as Threepipe co-founder, Jim Hawker, writes in the newly-published “FuturePRoof“:

“Too many PR campaigns are failing because of a lack of integrated response and an inherent lack of understanding of data and how to use it.”

This is data as the hard, analytical, business resource.

However data is used, for PR practitioners the need starts with having good, basic numerical and statistical skills – simple things like knowing which measure of average is most useful, the difference between a 20 per cent rise, and a rise of 20 percentage points etc.

I digress. This post is about the datum – the single piece of information. More so, it’s about the sources of each datum, real people with personal desires, worries, needs and wants.

Big data might work with “people like us”, but is that at the cost of not working with us as single people?

That marketing algorithm might generate a personJelly-beans-with-chart-and-textal-sounding letter or email, but it’s not a real personal approach.

I’ve been collecting the charity appeals bombarding someone I know. They have become appalled and responded in such terms. The letters still come, even – erroneously – thanking for donations that haven’t been made! Where is the human touch – the personal acknowledgement of distress caused?

Big Data is powerful – but its use can be dehumanising. Its potential is mesmerising, to the point that some would ride roughshod over the very concept of personal data.

This is the challenge and the opportunity for the public relations practitioner. Our discipline is ultimately about dialogue and discussion with people as individuals. We, in PR, are best-placed to ensure that the benefits we gain from Big Data aren’t at the loss of something special with the Small Data … people.

Let’s hear it for the Datum!

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