What does big data really mean in PR? Asks Hotwire’s Brendon Craigie

Big data has exploded over the past few years, or at least the now infamous term has. A Google Trends search reveals around a tenfold increase in interest between 2011 and today. We coined it as one of our Digital Trends for the year and indeed it is. But somewhere throughout the actual development of big data services and the general interest in it, it has become a phrase that raises more than a few eyebrows.

Big data with many industries is clearly something that can help deliver exceptional results that were unthinkable before, but I’ve also seen many problems with it, especially in PR.

As PRmoment’s Ben Smith highlighted in his blog, the problem for PR agencies is that we simply don’t have access to the level of census-wide data needed to make an impact. The bigger agencies that are part of conglomerates might have the access to research agencies, but then there are still legal and consent issues as well.

Aside from Smith’s point, my concern is that big data is becoming an excuse for not knowing what you’re talking about. Simply dropping the buzzwords du jour “big data” into a client conversation or a pitch is all well and good if you follow through on it, but how many times does that actually happen?

The new emerging debate over big data and small data is something that resonates strongly with us. We use Listening Post to map out social connections between a specific and small network of individuals. This isn’t a stab in the dark at the hundreds of millions of users active on social media, it’s the mapping of a very small data set – and it produces incredibly useful results that quickly make up part of campaign strategy.

And to me that’s what this whole big versus small approach comes down to. Big data is like sifting the ocean to find a fish, whereas small data is going to a rock pool in Somerset because you know that’s where the fish lives. The knowledge you have through experience and specialist expertise will never be replaced by big data, despite how powerful it is, because the experts will already know what they’re looking for.

When talking about a seemingly science-fiction future, we only have to think back to the film Minority Report to consider the possibilities. The crime-prediction software outlined in the film is remarkably like one developed by the University of Pennsylvania a few years ago that analyses huge amounts of data plugged into an algorithm to predict those who are most likely to offend. Big data is clearly a force that can bring a lot of good to our lives, but it is not the answer to all of the world’s problems.

The understanding you get from actually doing the job is far more valuable in helping clients to achieve their goals. Even in the most technologically advanced areas, big data is not an automatic process; it requires human interaction to get the most from it and to understand the output. And this is something that many don’t seem to understand when they’re talking about how everything they “do” is big data.

What this comes down to is that when I hear someone say they’ve got a reliance on big data in PR, it implies that they don’t really know what they’re on about.

Brendon Craigie, Group CEO, Hotwire

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