At a time when public opinions are proffered with only a casual consideration of accuracy, business communicators can make a big difference with evidence-based communication strategies.
It takes finesse to prove business claims in the form of stories that truly captivate, delight and engender trust among audiences. To achieve the delicate balance of credibility and emotional relevance, smart communicators are discovering unexpected collaborations that uncover hidden narratives with the power to resonate on a human level.
A new breed
You can thank philosopher Aristotle for identifying three ways to influence an audience: pathos (emotion), ethos (credibility) and logos (logic). While these ancient techniques haven’t changed much, it’s easy to see how emotional appeal has taken over as public conversations grow more crowded and noisier. Restoring rhetorical balance will require some fresh perspectives.
In the past, strict functional silos would have paired communication specialists with data-minded stakeholders such as investors and financial media. However, you are now dealing with a new breed of constituents who demand greater access to larger sets of facts and statistics. They tend to be digitally savvy and sceptical.
Trust in news
Consider recent findings from international public surveys about attitudes toward news.
Findings from the 2016 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, which spanned 26 countries, showed that the credibility of specific news brands is the most important driver of overall trust, even above trust in individual journalists. The research also looked at country-by-country results, which showed that 51 per cent in Germany, 50 per cent in the United Kingdom and 33 per cent in the United States agree (“strongly agree” or “tend to agree”) that they can trust most news most of the time.
Another study took a deeper dive. The 2016 Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, surveyed Americans about why they rely on their preferred news sources.
According to the U.S. study, getting the facts right (80 per cent) and presenting expert sources and data (70 per cent) are ranked by Americans as first and fourth among important reasons for trusting their news providers. When asked to recall an instance that caused them to question the credibility of a news source, 65 per cent say the reason was that its facts were wrong.
The general public, customers, employees and data journalists are avid seekers of data who now join those native number-crunchers in the financial community. These audiences share a proclivity for measurable, data-rich content that tell a company’s story in terms of financial performance, corporate reputation, brand benefits and more.
Needle in a haystack
With 2.5 exabytes of data produced every day—the equivalent of 650 billion Harry Potter books, according to IBM—are you looking for that elusive needle in a haystack? That’s where collaboration becomes a secret weapon. When you team up with your own internal resources, it’s akin to wielding industrial-strength magnets for those hidden needles.
Establishing internal channels is the starting point for shaping insights-driven narratives. Key questions to consider in collecting and preparing your business data include:
- What data does your organisation have?
- Who can give you access to the data?
- Which data tells the best story?
- How will you safeguard the data?
- What is your process for finding and responding to an editorial opportunity?
Using these questions as prompts, you can explore ways to build a cross-functional coalition of data reporters and owners.
Most business communicators already work with certain quantitative content such as financial reports, market research and public opinion studies, which are often prepared with external audiences in mind. But there are also other metrics and data sets that can be excavated from your organisation’s various internal sources.
“Establishing internal channels is the starting point for shaping insights-driven narratives.”
For instance, the human resource department can offer workplace statistics on employee engagement, diversity and inclusion measures and community volunteerism. These information nuggets can be used to help shape corporate reputation messages. Facility management administrators can provide data on energy efficiency, recycling and use of renewable energy. Such metrics can be plugged into sustainability reports or scripts citing cost savings for investor calls. Marketing and sales sources have customer data, which can yield interesting brand slices about buyers’ preferences, habits or spending power for pitches to trade or general interest media.
Forensic story development
Your company’s data owners are your interpreters of the data. Their expert eyes can spot trends and anomalies that may serve as business artefacts worth sharing. Together, your collaborations to develop stories should follow the methodology of a forensic investigation.
As the communications lead, you should have a hypothesis, or a story idea, to test. Your internal partners can analyse the data objectively to prove or disprove your hunch. They can also let you know if the data is available to be shared in a structured format, which means it is highly organised and can be manipulated to produce charts, lists, word clouds, infographics and other forms of data visualisation.
At this point the data must pass your test for public consumption. Regardless of how interesting the facts and figures may be to corporate experts, they must be relevant within the context of your message strategy and the needs of your audience. Does the data help advise, educate or amuse in a way that elicits a positive response from stakeholders about your brand or business reputation?
All your data sources hold potential story ideas that can be mined. However, in this era of heightened cybersecurity you must pay close attention to data owners’ requirements for control and protection of data. There are legal considerations about privacy and copyrights. Regulatory compliance rules will apply to financial disclosure, consumer privacy, patient rights and other areas of exposure.
Once your data story has been thoroughly vetted and cleared internally, the tasks of preparing and disseminating content assets should fall into more familiar protocols for media relations and other public communication. However, the field of data journalism warrants some attention due to practicing journalists’ special requirements on source material.
“The data must pass your test for public consumption.”
The professional news industry generally views data journalism as a specialty that combines statistical analysis of large data sets with the traditional activities of gathering, evaluating, producing and disseminating news. The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) cites the origin of modern data analysis in 1967 by The Detroit Free Press, which employed a mainframe computer to examine a survey of the city’s residents for a story on racial unrest.
Media organisations with data journalism specialties include cross-platform news brands Al Jazeera, BBC, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNBC, El Universal, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as digital natives BuzzFeed and FiveThirtyEight.
One honouree in the 2016 GINJ Data Journalism Awards was Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung. For its groundbreaking Panama Papers project, the newspaper collaborated with 400 journalists in nearly 80 countries through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to analyse 2.6 terabytes of data.
Many data journalists have backgrounds in mathematics, computer programming, graphic design and web development. Their newsroom careers often involve investigative reports, business or financial news and contributions to feature stories or special assignments.
Pitching your data story
To successfully pitch your story to a data journalist, you should offer a spokesperson who is analytical, trained to offer simple explanations and prepared to speak with the media. In addition, your raw data set must be provided in a structured format (e.g., tables, spreadsheets, SPSS, comma-delimited (.csv) files). In the newsroom, the data will be cleansed, organised, analysed statistically, reproduced visually as charts, maps, illustrations or animation, and then published.
Cardlytics, a data intelligence provider, prepared anonymised transactional data from such bank partners including Bank of America and PNC, to develop a feature story. For the culmination of the 2016 U.S. income tax reporting season on April 15, the company shared an interesting look at how Americans changed their spending before and after paying their taxes. After paying Uncle Sam, spending for groceries, home and garden, and gasoline takes a hit, according to Cardlytics.
Data-driven breaking news
Because of the labour-intensive nature of their news production, data journalists will insist on an exclusive story and a longer lead time. However, there are still other ways to gain exposure for your data story on shorter notice if you’re willing to package it for unrestricted use.
Dating site Tinder knows how to harvest its rich data for breaking news opportunities. A recent U.S. snowstorm presented the chance to share fun facts about the amorous activities of its community of “swipers.” According to Tinder, there was an 11 per cent boost in activity during the 2017 blizzard, compared to its two most recent snow-laden predecessors, when there were 12 per cent and 10 per cent increases.
Integration into communications strategy
In closing, here are takeaways about adding data-driven narratives into your communications strategy through collaborations:
- Establish internal channels and processes to collect data regularly for feature, soft and hard news opportunities.
- Use data to differentiate your brand or business in busy newsrooms, boardrooms and social media spaces.
- Bigger data can yield more stories, but will need longer lead times internally and externally.
- Pitch journalists according to their resources; bigger data stories will require exclusivity.
- Stand out with counterintuitive story angles where data can recast a familiar situation in new or unexpected ways.
- For non-exclusive data news, offer visual assets such as charts, maps or infographics.