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!

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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.