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Big data and public relations

Are we not human anymore?

Today, I came across a charming set of memes that dealt with growing up in the nineties. Take a look for yourself! The choices we had seem so limited compared to what is currently available to us, but they were sufficient. Believe it or not, we were utilising big data before the term was even coined in 2005.

“What is big data?” you might ask

 I’ve spent the last year and a half educating myself on big data. As a primer, here’s a quick timeline of the term’s origins:



According to Wikipedia, big data is a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing application.

According to O’Reilly Media, the pioneers of ‘big data’, “Big data is data that exceeds the processing capacity of conventional database systems. The data is too big, moves too fast, or doesn’t fit the structures of your database architectures. To gain value from this data, you must choose an alternative way to process it.”

The definitions of big data, then, constantly evolved and changed from Gartner, to Forrester to IBM’s four Vs and McKinsey’s utilitarian definition, each becoming more and more complex.

I prefer to break down the meaning by use of a simple analogy: the usage of big data is akin to the creation of the perfect mixtape. Allow me to explain.

The four Vs of big data, and the art and science of gifting a perfect mixtape



Most marketers today swear by IBM’s four Vs of big data:

  1. Volume: the amount of available data
  2. Variety: the types of available data
  3. Velocity: the speed at which data is received
  4. Veracity: the accuracy and validity of the data

So, how does big data play into the creation of a mixtape? Imagine a scenario where a loved one is going away for a while. We may want to present them with a carefully curated mixtape, and in essence, we will go through the following motions in the process:

  1. Volume: We would go about listening to songs we heard and enjoyed on the radio, in music stores, or on TV. Then, we would ask them about the songs they like. We created our list.
  2. Variety: We take note of the bands they listen to, and the genres and the subgenres they enjoy most — R&B, classic rock, Indie pop, grunge, etc. We narrowed our list down.
  3. Velocity: Suddenly, we catch them humming a new song, we come across a specific artist they like, or we find out they love the lyrics of a certain track; our mixtape needs to be modified swiftly. We expanded our list.
  4. Veracity: Finally, when our track list is complete, we ponder our selection: were there messages we wanted to deliver? Do they have a crush on a singer whose songs were included that now we would rather remove? Would we keep those songs, regardless? We fine-tuned our list.

Voila! We have our mixtape. The only thing left is for us to present them with it and hope that it results in a positive reaction.

How this relates to big data and PR today

As public relations professionals, we are accustomed to giving clients counsel based on a variety of factors, including what they stand for, what they wish to be perceived as, and who their key stakeholders are. Ultimately, our mixtape — the news we disperse — is meant to have a positive reaction. Big data analysis helps us do just that by offering us a range of tools to analyse millions of terabytes of consumer data, on the spot and consistently. I shall not list all these tools as this wonderful article by Katleen Peeters does just that.

Such tools help us generate consumer insights — the key, time-tested barometer we always apply to drive and generate our counsel. In turn, big data lets us base these insights not just on a dipstick, or a 1000-sample size survey as we can now analyse live trends from millions of human beings and their behaviors from across the world. Digitised behavior now gives us a clear indication of what our stakeholders want, even up to a few minutes ago, and PR tactics can then eliminate subjectivity and reflect the facts.

The only thing I would like to end with is the sentiment I started with: veracity — never forget or underestimate its worth. Base your tactics on all the big data in the world, but remember, we are human, and humans in PR build genuine and authentic relationships.

Jamal H. Iqbal is Executive Creative Director at Cicero & Bernay Public Relations, an independent PR agency headquartered in Dubai that offers new-age public relations consultancy to the MENA region.