Big Data science and the art of reputation management

August 5, 2014

By: John Onoda

The art of reputation management rests on the skills of communications professionals, the tools at their disposal and the raw material they have to work with. In the early days of public relations, the skills were mostly journalistic; the tools were typewriters and telephones; and the raw material consisted mostly of products and services offered by large companies. In recent decades, the skills are those of integrated marketing increasingly colored by familiarity with digital technologies; the tools are computers, mobile phones, laptops and social media; and the raw material is pretty much everything and anything.

What about in the future?

I can’t claim to have a crystal ball, but I feel that a period of great upheaval is approaching. Today, most people in our field are focused on social media’s transformative effect on marketing and public relations but I don’t see this as the main trigger.

I’ve been learning a lot about Big Data that leads me to view it as a game changer that will be as disruptive for communications professionals as the internet was when it first came into common usage. For those of you who don’t recall the days when we did all our work on actual pieces of paper and sent out news releases by snail mail, let me tell you, the change was profound. For more than a decade, people resisted the switch from analog to digital. Those who couldn’t change or wouldn’t change lost their jobs. New people with new skills took their places. The very nature of what we do to earn a living evolved radically.

Big Data has the potential to send a comparable shockwave through our industry. Right now, its potential is barely apparent and mostly understood as doing business as usual except with a lot more information; but that’s because people look at the power of numbers crunching through the lens of past experience. The big disruption will come as Big Data’s predictive and prescriptive capabilities become evident. The endgame of this will be that computers will make many of the decisions only human beings are making today.

What! Me replaced by a machine!

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has opined that Big Data will allow healthcare organizations to replace 80 percent of the decisions made by doctors. Machines will have all the knowledge of every medical publication, all research and all shared data banks on which to make judgments. Because their accuracy rate will be higher than mere humans, insurance companies will insist that fallible, flesh-and-blood healthcare professionals be disintermediated whenever the math indicates that the switch will benefit patients as well as the bottom line.

If doctors making complicated, life-and-death decisions about people can be replaced 80 percent of the time, how replaceable are communications professionals developing ways to inform and influence people regarding the purchase of products and services, voting for political candidates, working in the most efficient ways or supporting important public policy issues?

Quite a bit, I think.

One recent example of Big Data disrupting traditional communications and marketing is the collaborative effort between Pantene, The Weather Channel and Walgreens. Based on the insight that many women check the weather first thing in the morning to determine its effect on their hair, an app was developed to provide The Weather Channel forecast for the day with a suggestion regarding the hair product (available at a nearby Walgreens store) most suitable for controlling unruly locks.

It worked. Many app users were relieved to surrender hair care decisions that they had been making all their adult life. These are decisions generations of marketing professionals have been battling to influence. Now, those who stay in the game will have to compete with algorithms. It will be a face-off of art versus science.

It’s already becoming clear that Big Data through the deployment of automated driving is going to replace a lot of decision-making in regard to daily transportation. Food consumption and health decisions will be influenced if not surrendered as apps provide ongoing coaching, advising and nagging. Match-making and dating behaviors are going to be increasingly altered by real-time computer intervention (Your date just told you a lie!).

If this is the future, we need to be thinking about the day when our boss has to choose between the communicators suggesting a new campaign and the data scientists who for the same money can develop an app that will achieve the results with statistically higher levels of stakeholder activation.

While it will take years before we reach this point, the time to begin preparing for it is now. There are things we can do to create alliances before relationships become adversarial or, failing that, to gain the upper hand, but the groundwork must be laid now.

John Onoda, who has led the communications functions at Charles Schwab, Visa USA, General Motors and Levi Strauss, is a senior advisor at Gagen MacDonald, a firm that helps to develop and execute strategies related to organizational change and transformation.