Friday, June 1, 2012

Seeing is believing -- why PR people should take infographics more seriously

Infographics are cool. You probably get fed infographics every day on Facebook and Pinterest, you follow the Infographic of the Day on Fast Company, or you have at least browsed at or played around with Google Fusion Tables. Yet most PR people have not realized the immense challenge—to our analytical and visual competencies—that infographics have presented.

My own interest in infographics comes from their obvious capability (often compelling, but surely limited) to help solve the PR person’s dilemma with research (PR person’s dilemma: “I don’t really understand the full implications of the data. Neither does my audience. But I have to be a responsible advocate for my client/boss.” PR person’s solution: “A picture is worth a thousand words. And there’s a tsunami of use/interest in infographics—via readily available business graphics software, mobile, Pinterest, etc.”) I acknowledge that many of the purists in the PR/marketing research field just wish that the infographics fad would go away; don’t hold your breath.

An illuminating blog post by Crystalyn Stuart of the company 5Loom appeared May 16 at the Council of PR Firms blog, Firm Voice,  about “data storytelling,” which she defined as “(1) how we use data visualization to help us see and read the story social data tells, and (2) how we as social media experts package that story and make adjustments to campaigns.” 5Loom says they help you to bridge that gap between acquiring data, analyzing data, understanding data, and conveying accurate, responsible data-driven messages that can be understood by people (other than algorithm-writers and statisticians).

In a recent New York Internet Week presentation, a New York-Philadelphia-India-based business improvement software/services firm, Atidan, described itself as focusing “on delivering relevant, accurate and timely answers and insights that help businesses find new revenue, improve decision-making and solve business problems.” (They want to help you do stuff better.) For a PR person, Atidan’s most interesting offering is how they apply/integrate the Microsoft SharePoint solution. The feature called SharePoint Insights provides “business intelligence for everyone.”

The technology solution accesses all the data collected about the business and its markets through the ecommerce, websites, intranets, extranets; has analytic capabilities; and then provides a “decomposition tree” (to show “root cause analyses”) and dashboards. In theory, a CMO could use such a product—in which all communication is digitally mediated and analytically centralized—to have a coherent analytical perspective and a user-friendly, primarily infographic interface.

Along the same lines, IBM is offering an (integrated) enterprise marketing management platform, a product that helps an organization understand its “Generation C” (connected) customers focusing on 1) “visual exploration: . . . intuitive charts, graphs and other visual representations of customer behavior” and 2) “predictive analytics: predicts customer response based on past behavior and attributes.” The IBM Enterprise Marketing Managementpitch explicitly acknowledges the “burden” faced by “marketers with analytic chores.” The technology is said to relieve marketers “of burdensome data sorting in spreadsheets.”

I do not have hands-on knowledge of 5Loom’s Data Storytelling, or Microsoft’s SharePoint Insight, or IBM’s Enterprise Marketing Management solutions—but they are clearly all sensing the same need in the marketing management sector. The process has not changed (IBM calls it the “Enterprise Marketing Management loop . . . the integrated processes of Collect, Decide, Deliver and Manage.” Doesn’t that sound like the old PR dictum of research, plan, communicate and evaluate?). But the enormity of the inputs and sophistication on the technology side (the collect/research phase) has left too many marketers, and certainly too many quant-phobic PR people, in the dust. Hence infographics (data visualization, visual exploration, decomposition trees . . . pictures). And when Microsoft and IBM put their resources and their own marketing muscle behind providing pictures, it is hard to dismiss the surge in infographics as a fad.

The implications for public relations professionals are profound:

  • The issue of strategically linking research to PR is actually settled. Microsoft, IBM, and others take it for granted. Which means their business enterprise clients (the CMOs) are (or soon will be) taking it for granted, too. PR people might as well quit worrying so much about defining PR ROI – Microsoft, IBM, and the others are going to do it for us.
  • A PR department or PR agency that does not integrate with state-of-the-art data management and analysis (their own or with partners) has slipped back into the exclusive domain of smoke and mirrors (and all the worst stereotypes about PR). Beware to all clients and users of PR services: Do those PR people walk the walk about “research”? Be tough-minded when you ask that question. The ability to “do” social media is not the same as providing data-driven insight and evidence-based program evaluation.
  • The current, and the next, generation of PR professionals needs to be educated and informed about big data management and technologies. Implications abound for PR and marketing college and grad school curricula. You would not expect to get a business degree or MBA without a firm quantitative grounding; study of PR, marketing and communications is going to have join the other business disciplines in embracing data. Advice to young PR professionals: work on your quantitative chops.
  • Finally, however, there remains the Art, along with the Science, of public relations. As PR becomes a grown-up in the world of big data management, it also has to become much more sophisticated about visualization and design. The parameters of the human glance and the attention span are not likely to change, to adapt to big data. Effective, responsible, and ethical communicators are going to have to learn how—through evidence and tested processes—to create imagery/infographics that communicate accurately. Infographics are actually getting harder to do than ever. Infographics is not about pretty/arresting images any more than PR is about creativity.
  • Showing and telling—within the big data management environment—is the PR challenge of the decade.

This blog post was originally published
at on May 30, 2012