PRINZ Conference 2013 – blog 1: Big data is here. Are we ready?

Tim Marshall, PRINZ Life member

I’m fascinated by big data. It raises the spectre of sci-fi movies like Brazil, the Matrix and Gattaca (don’t these examples show my age) and it is inevitable more and more data will be captured about every aspect of who we are and what we do. As PR practitioners we need to learn to make the most of this rich resource. Analyses and correlation of big data sets allows the smart cookies who do this work to spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and reduce traffic congestion.

One of the many points touched on by PRINZ Conference 2013 opening speaker David Brain, CEO of Edelman Asia Pacific, was the sheer volume of consumer, sales and product data now generated. He used Edelman’s client PepsiCo as an example of a global brand about which there is a mass of data – but he could easily have named any one of thousands of major brands. David challenged his fellow PR practitioners to understand big data and how it can be used. We don’t have to be data analysts but we sure have to understand what these guys are up to and work alongside them. David said ad agencies were increasingly turning to PR principles and methods. “PR thinking is the future of advertising,” he opined. But ad agencies have the jump on PR practitioners when it comes to big data from decades of working with their research departments.

Opening the conference Christchurch mayor Bob Parker spoke about the huge public consultation the city undertook to find out what its residents wanted its future to be after the devastating earthquakes. “Share an idea” attracted an incredible 106,000 ideas from Christchurch citizens. These ideas had to be sorted collated so a vision and plan for Christchurch’s future could be drawn from them. Bob Parker described the initiative as community public relations on a massive scale that required first briefing of citizens then sifting, sorting and coalescing massive amounts of unstructured big data.

Why do PR practitioners need to know about big data? Because in the competitive world we live in, knowing how to use big data is a winning formula. There was no more compelling example of that than Barack Obama’s win over Mitt Romney in the 2012 US election. Obama’s digital director Teddy Goff spoke at an Air New Zealand-hosted social media breakfast in Auckland in February and it was clear from his address that the Democrats understood social media and how to use all the information (big data) it provides and the Republicans just didn’t get it. I am sure the canniness of the Democrats with social media and big data was one of Obama’s big competitive advantages.

PRINZ Conference 2013 speaker Simon Rae, Policy and Technology Team leader in the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, went a step further than just talking about big data – he included it in his presentation title: The ethical implications for enduring relationships in an era of Big Data. The Privacy Commissioner has a regulatory role to control the use of data matching by government departments and the key message for anyone, including PR practitioners, involved in data analysis is that there are rules and regulations around bringing together different sets of data (e.g. comparing a list of people receiving a Government benefit with a list of people who have been imprisoned) to protect the privacy of individuals.

Other speakers at the conference highlighted the mind-boggling amounts of data being generated daily and how to deal with it. David Dunlay from Tandem Studios said 89 million people in the United States watch 1.2 billion on-line videos each day. He said organisations need to have their own “mother ship” of content that can be multi-purposed into long and short video, audio, image and text. David Brain said 53% of internet downloads are video and you are 70% more likely to have your piece found on the web if it is video. Social and market researcher Carl Davidson of Research First talked about the sins of collecting data that already exists or that we don’t need. He said he had never seen a survey questionnaire that was too short. BECA technical director Martin Coates brought a unique analogue perspective to the challenge of simplifying big data (aka information overload) – a pad of paper and a pencil. Martin reduced 90 slides of words about asset management that sent people to sleep into a one page cartoon “infographic” that his audience understood and even laughed about.

My final word on big data comes from David Brain who, as Edelman’s Asia Pacific CEO, heads a business of about 1,100 employees generating $70 million in fees: “Data, data, data allows better strategic planning and grown up conversations with clients.”

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