The Big Debate over Big Data

This past Monday, Syracuse University hosted three distinguished leaders in politics, digital media and information studies for what quickly became a heated discussion about the merits vs. pitfalls of “big data” and its role in our political system.  Ashley Bryant (State Digital Director of Ohio for the 2012 Obama Campaign), Professor Paul Morarescu (School of Information Studies) and Professor Grant Reeher (Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs) differed greatly in their analysis of how big data can affect U.S. politics, but one thing was wholeheartedly agreed upon by all three: big data is here, and it is here to stay.

 What is “Big Data?”              

Simply put, big data refers to the monumentally large amounts of information that are created due to the increasing use of the Internet and social networks.  Check out this infographic by Mashable for a visual representation of the trend.

Why care about it?

In a world where understanding our fellow citizens seems impossible, big data makes it possible.  Skilled analysts can sift through mountains of digital information and break it down into information and trends that can be used by marketers, public relations people or any other communicators.  What is more valuable than having hard data to back your communications campaign?!

What does it have to do with politics?

In order to effectively target messages toward a ‘persuadable’ group of likely voters, campaigns use the data we provide online about our thoughts, behaviors and predispositions.  This could be information a campaign asks you for directly through surveys or other techniques, or it could be information obtained less overtly.  While Professor Reeher seemed uncomfortable about this targeting of a campaign’s messaging, arguing that it could make politics less honest and more manipulative, Ms. Bryant remained firm in her idea that the use of big data only informs the ways in which a message is targeted, not the message’s content itself.

As a public relations practitioner myself, I tend to side with Ms. Bryant, since I believe in consistent and honest messaging across all communications with targeting only changing the positioning of each communication.  Which camp do you agree with? Let me know in the comments below!


5 ways social media changed “The Big Game”

1.       People kept their eye on the…ball?

Actually, they didn’t.  According to Mashable, 24.1 million tweets were sent during the course of the game and Beyonce’s halftime show.  That means that on average, about 5 million tweets were sent each hour of the programming.  As we all know, social media takes formerly single-screen experiences and transforms them into multi-screen, multi-dimensional experiences.  Whether a football fan, Beyonce fan, or just an observer, an online conversation was ready and waiting for you last night, and odds are you chimed in.

2.       People demanded more.


It seemed that everyone involved in last night’s game was up for public critique, from the broadcasters, to power companies, to performers, not to mention the players and coaches.  From a public relations standpoint, this provided plenty of interesting examples of how brands can best respond to such criticism.  For example, Entergy, the power company for the Superdome, updated their Twitter feed with information on their efforts to find the source of the 34-minute outage, and even released a joint statement with the managers of the Superdome today. Every communications manager from every organization even remotely connected to such a huge event was on-call last night, as should be the case in our world where crises never sleep.

3.       A blackout blew up.

Rather than losing viewers due to technical difficulties during a game that seemed to be no-contest, CBS actually gained viewers, said one Yahoo! News report.  How did this happen? Likely the same way that Tracy Morgan and Jimmy Kimmel’s Emmy awards fainting hoax did.  The news of the blackout went viral on Facebook and Twitter, and people tuned in immediately.

4.       #AdBowl winners won, instantly.

According to Mashable, 30% of the tweets during the game were about the advertisements.  Breaking this down further, they mapped out exactly which brands were the most talked-about in the online conversations, with Taco Bell and Budweiser taking the lead.  While these numbers do not factor in the question of positive vs. negative mentions, they certainly provide a good basis upon which the winners and losers of last night’s #AdBowl can be judged.

5.      A good ad gained value.

For those companies that created the most popular ads of last night, they got far more than their money’s worth.  The ad they would have paid millions for ten years ago suddenly gets thousands of free viewers as it spreads through social media.  Bad ads, however, become worse catastrophes.  Rather than being complained about on a couch of four people and forgotten minutes later, they are torn apart online over and over.  Thanks to social media, there was much more than just the Lombardi trophy at stake last night.

Congratulations to my favorite Twitter success of the evening….oreo

New Year, New York!

The perfect way to kick off the new year, I embarked on a two-day trip to New York City with twenty-six of my graduate public relations peers.  The whirlwind trip gave us helpful insight into the ‘real-world’ of public relations and the realities of post-graduate life…both the glory and the gore.
[View the story “Newhouse visits NYC” on Storify]Thanks to our hosts at MBooth Public Relations, Edelman, Marina Maher Communications, Time Warner, Viacom and the talented alumni who spent their Thursday evening with us at the Lubin House!

PRL 614: Crisis Planning & Press Briefings

            Last week in our public relations writing course, we were assigned teams and simulated crisis press briefings to implement for our classmates.  One of the teams was assigned to develop a crisis plan and execute a briefing for the Costa Concordia crash last January.  Their plan included a comprehensive response outline, including responses for social media and the company’s website.  Overall, I was very impressed with their professionalism and key talking points for this simulation! 

“Isolated incident”

            However, one suggestion for improvement would be to avoid labeling this accident as an “isolated incident.”  The faux CEOs of Costa and Carnival both used this term occasionally in an attempt to reassure their stakeholders that an accident of this nature would likely not repeat itself.  While I see the value of that reassurance, I believe the wording of “isolated incident” has the side effect of connoting minimization of the event’s severity.  That effect was obviously not their intention, and the words “isolated incident” are used quite often in crisis responses by organizations.  However, I would advise CEOs and spokespeople to avoid the use of that phrase.

            I thought that the group’s stress on their cooperation with the Italian authorities lent a significant amount of strength to their presentation.  Also, they kept a serious yet positive tone throughout the briefing, which conveyed their wholehearted commitment to remedying the situation.  For example, when the customer service representative (played by Jen Zink) was talking about the reparations being made to the passengers and families affected, she began by saying that “what was lost can never truly be replaced.” This validates the emotions felt by the affected customers, showing that the company understands and sympathizes with their plight.

            Overall, the Costa/Carnival group’s press briefing was an effective communication of the company’s commitment to fixing the situation and taking responsibility for the events that transpired.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for an organization to predict 100% of the possible crises that may arise due to human error or technical failures.  However, if organizations respond as this group did in their simulation, they will likely survive such a crisis. 

Starbucks: The Business of the Future?

                Last Friday, Newhouse welcomed back many distinguished alumni for “PR Day,” a day of lectures and discussions aimed at providing current students with valuable insights into their future careers.  The morning session was led by Jim Olson, Vice President of Global Corporate Communications for Starbucks.  Equipped with twenty-one years of experience in the field since graduating in 1991, he shared his, and Starbucks’, vision of what “21st Century Leadership” means. 
                The lecture began with Olson explaining the transformation of Starbucks from a company of “commoditization” to one based on values and experience that began in 2007, with a memorandum from Howard Schultz to the corporate leadership.  In this memo, Schultz stressed that in order to not fail as a corporation, they must get back to “the core” of the company: the Starbucks experience.  The tumultuous period following this memo included a sharp dive in stock prices and store closings to re-train employees.  However, as Olson put it, “it was an investment we had to make.”

“Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”-Starbucks’ mission statement

                In the years since Starbucks’ dramatic transformation, the corporate leadership, particularly Howard Schultz (CEO), has led the company toward a unique business strategy based on values, community and social responsibility.  Rather than corporate social responsibility (CSR) being a function only of the public relations or community relations department, the values behind CSR drive all decision-making at the organization.  For example, in August 2011, as the United States seemed to be drowning under a weight of debt and unemployment, Schultz saw himself in a unique position to make a change in the communities in which Starbucks operates.  With Olson and the communications teams’ help, Schultz and Starbucks began inspiring CEOs to take a serious look at the state of federal politics and to focus on job creation within their own organizations rather than petty partisan arguments.  Rather than being reactive in their approach to CSR, and only implementing programs directly linked to a tangible ROI for the company, Starbucks was proactive in “using its scale for good” across the country.
                The idealist inside each of the many public relations students attending this lecture was inspired by Olson’s presentation.  Could this be the business of the future?! Corporations holding strong to their mission, making business decisions based on values, not just financial value?!  If public relations as a practice goes the way that Newhouse teaches us to practice it, I’d like to think this will be the business environment of the future.  Fundamentally, the success of every organization is linked directly to the well-being of its constituents.  In order to be successful in business, organizations must also be successful in people.  As Olson informed us, “a successful business all starts with culture.”   

[View the story “Jim Olson speaks at #NHPRDay” on Storify]

Jim Olson speaks at #NHPRDay

During Newhouse’s Public Relations Day on 11/9/12, Jim Olson, a 1991 graduate of the school, spoke about "21st Century Leadership: Turning a Company Into a Movement."

Storified by Deanna Payson · Mon, Nov 12 2012 08:57:58

Jim Olson, VP Global Corporate Communications at @Starbucks Payson
RT @megancorbet: Jim Olson sharing @Starbucks unique model for success… It’s working! #NHPRDay @SUPRSSA @newhousepr PRSSA
Olson shared Starbucks’ ideas on value-based business leadership, inspiring many young PR people in the audience.
"a company’s values can translate into real shareholder value!" -Jim Olson @Starbucks #NHPRDayDeanna Payson
A successful business all starts with culture – Jim Olson #NHPRDay #PRssaWeek @NewhousePRSyracuse PRSSA
Seriously! RT @deannap09: Wouldn’t it be nice if ALL companies did as much for employees, customers & world as @Starbucks?! #NHPRDayZoey Topper
RT @deannap09: "we are a people company when we are at our best" Howard Schultz #NHPRDay @StarbucksNewhouse School
He shared the principles behind the “Jobs for USA” initiative created by Starbucks last year – more than just good CSR!
Such an honor to meet Jim Olson today… @starbucks has amazing #CSR @ Newhouse III Auburn
Olson left us with parting wisdom from his 22 years of experience in the field.
"Love what you do and find a company that can make a difference in the world" – Jim Olson #NHPRDay @NewhousePR #PRssaWeekSyracuse PRSSA

Ethics in Public Relations ≠ Public Relations Ethics

Being “rational” isn’t enough.  
I’d like to think that I am a rational being, who weighs both sides of an issue and uses critical thinking before coming to a conclusion.  In the study of ethics, however, the idea of ‘rational’ thinking becomes complicated by the co-existence of two equally ‘rational’ means of making a decision.  Utilitarianism says that an action is ethically good if maximizes the positive outcomes for the greatest number of people possible.  On the other hand, deontology says we are all duty-bound, and an action is ethically good if it can be universalized (if everyone repeated this action everywhere, would it be okay?), if it maintains the respect and dignity of all people and if it is done with good intentions.  Both are arguably valid ways of analyzing an ethical dilemma, but given the myriad ways in which utilitarianism can be manipulated to serve horrible intentions, I choose to ascribe to deontology. 
What does this have to do with public relations?
In last week’s PR theory course, we spent close to an hour debating the idea of whether or not we, as future public relations practitioners, would work for a major tobacco company or other unethical organizations.  The class was split; half of us believed we would do whatever work was available, as we would separate our work from ourselves and our own morals.  The other half of us believed we would not work for such a company, with blatantly unethical practices, even if it meant struggling more with our personal finances.  I would argue that those who would take such a job were applying a form of utilitarianism.  To them, the greatest good would be maximized by them being employed and able to feed their families.[1]  The deontologists in the group felt duty-bound, as members of society, not to lend their skill sets to an unethical cause.  This class debate clearly showed the need for a better instruction on ethics in public relations courses nationwide.  Whether we work for unethical companies, or are simply faced with ethical dilemmas in the course of our work (which is inevitable), we will need to be equipped with the decision-making skills to choose the ethical path. 

Ethics in Public Relations ≠ Public Relations Ethics
As the “corporate conscience” of an organization, public relations practitioners are increasingly called upon to be the ethical voice in a time of tumult.  As such, public relations students must be taught how to be autonomous, unbiased and ethical decision-makers.  However, the day-to-day ethical decisions we will make are not the same as an industry-wide code of ethics to which practitioners must adhere.  While organizations like the Public Relations Society of America do have a code of ethics, such codes often lack enforcement and/or a true understanding of public relations’ role as corporate conscience.   
For these reasons, I believe public relations educators must do two things. First, they must integrate some sort of course on ethics and ethical philosophy into their curricula.  Students in public relations must be informed of the pros and cons of applying both utilitarianism and deontology to dilemmas with which they are faced in the real world.  They must be taught to apply ethics IN public relations.  Second, public relations educators must craft their own list, alongside industry professionals, of public relations ethics.  Without these steps, future public relations practitioners will be ill-equipped to face the ethical quandaries they will undoubtedly stumble into during their careers.   Whether or not we would choose to work for a tobacco company, we should at the very least be empowered with the understanding of ethical analyses that can help us make any and all decisions we face in the most ethical way possible.           

[1]However, they were forgetting that a greater number of people are harmed by the manufacture and marketing of tobacco products than would be helped by their employment there.

Chancellor Cantor will leave Syracuse University

Last Friday, students and faculty at Syracuse University were made aware that in 2014, at the end of her contract, Nancy Cantor will end her reign as Chancellor of the university.  The university community seems to be split on their reactions to this announcement.  After months of criticism by free-speech advocates (including this article by The Daily Orange in April 2012), who see her management and communications style as detrimental to the University, many cheered this news.  However, many others in the university see this departure as tragically ending what will have been ten years of increased diversity, community outreach and engaged learning.

In terms of the public relations impact of her departure, I see a long road ahead in effectively maintaining relationships with the university’s stakeholders.  The difficulty lies in Chancellor Cantor’s “Scholarship In Action” programs; these new initiatives of engaged learning have created a multitude of new stakeholders who are now strongly tied to the university.  Prior to Chancellor Cantor’s reign, these individuals or groups may not even have existed as stakeholders.  For example, the Imagining Americaprogram at Syracuse did not move to campus until 2007.  Today, there are eleven graduate students whose studies are paid for in part by this program, in addition to three full-time employees running the program and student work studies managing the office.  All of these individuals now have stake in not just the university, but in Chancellor Cantor’s initiatives and her leadership.  This may seem like a small group, but there are countless groups like this across the university, and all will want a voice during this time of transition.
I will let the hallways and classrooms of Syracuse work out whether Cantor’s departure is for the best or the worse, but regardless, from a public relations perspective, the university is in quite a pickle.  Due to the growing criticism of Cantor’s work, should the university start from scratch, and leave behind many of her initiatives? Or, due to the influx of stakeholders who now have brand-new or stronger ties to the university, should it continue Cantor’s initiatives in the interest of maintaining good relations?    Either way, the university will need to proceed with transparency (some would argue a new concept for Cantor’s Syracuse…), two-way dialogue and respect for all stakeholders involved.  If public relations is not at the table during the important decision-making processes of this transition, it is unlikely the university will come out of this time unscathed.