Some of the best stories are told by data says Teamspirit’s Mark Baker

Say the word “data“, and most people switch off immediately. In PRmoment last week, Graham Goodkind argued that too much data in PR can be bad for creativity. The problem is that “data” doesn’t sound exciting and so doesn’t immediately seem like fertile ground for creative thinking. But in fact, numbers can tell much more compelling stories than most people in PR realise.

For us, this began several years ago with the realisation that simplistic use of consumer research was no longer going to generate media cut through like it once had. The “fluffy” 8-out-of-10-cats approach has even become an irritant to journalists.

The antibiotics of the PR world, consumer surveys, are over-used and becoming less effective year-by-year. However, when prescribed appropriately, they still have their place, but they are also expensive and often provide indifferent and undifferentiated results.

Meanwhile, the amount of big data being generated is expanding every year; our clients, our public institutions, and a whole range of other organisations are producing and storing large amounts of data on an annual basis. Whether it's customer behaviour or demographics, financial data, the vast archive of national statistics, or the proprietary information sold by the likes of Bloomberg and Factset, this information can provide fascinating insights into any of the issues facing society today – in other words, news!

For example, we produce the Capita UK Dividend Monitor for Capita’s financial arm. We crunch the data quarterly on every dividend payment made by the UK’s listed firms. This is presented in a report and an “oven-ready” news release for the media and other stakeholders.

As a result of this work, Capita Asset Services is the voice of authority on the overall picture for the income that UK equities provide and its PR profile is far ahead of its rivals. As well as making regular headlines in the business, comment and PF pages, it is a superb tool for engaging Capita’s clients and other stakeholders. The report is used by the Bank of England and The Pensions Regulator, and is respected across the City. Research like this can sit at the very heart of a content strategy.

There is still a role for the consumer survey, but we think it works best when PR professionals get the underlying data and do a little more digging. Too often, people realise too late that the cross-breaks they have ordered don’t provide the insight they need. Going back to ask for more is expensive. You have paid for this data, so get the research company to give it to you, and, with some nifty excel techniques, you can cross-break it yourself as many times as you like, for free!

Use the survey as a window into the real numbers; don’t just report what the survey says. Overlay the responses with real data, for example from the Bank of England or the ONS. Suddenly you get a much richer, and much more credible product to present to the media.

As an industry we are overflowing with great creative minds, and practitioners with a superb grasp of language, but analytical skills and using numbers aren’t always our biggest strengths. Using numbers, spotting the patterns, and telling the stories that are hidden in them requires a combination of creative thinking and analytical process. But, the results can be incredibly powerful, providing robust, credible, and own-able content that forms the foundation of thought leadership campaigns. Data is not dull!

Mark Baker, head of research at Teamspirit Public Relations

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