Prof. Dr.
Christof E. Ehrhart

is Group Exec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent at Deutsche Post DHL and head of cor­po­rate group com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cor­po­rate respon­si­bil­i­ty for this glob­al mail and logis­tics com­pa­ny. In 2013 he was appoint­ed Hon­orary Pro­fes­sor of Inter­na­tion­al Cor­po­rate Com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Leipzig.

Finan­cial Report­ing

SMALL DATA / big data – what matters most in future communications

By Christof E. Ehrhart

With­out any doubt, big data is the heavy­weight cham­pi­on of hype in the last years. But it is more than that. In some are­nas, it has become a true game chang­er. Big data con­quered and changed the adver­tis­ing world, for instance. The suc­cess of Google’s adver­tis­ing busi­ness is based on tar­get­ed data min­ing through applied math­e­mat­ics. Big data also enables retail­ers to make smart pre­dic­tions about our future shop­ping behav­iors by ana­lyz­ing the quan­ti­ties of data stored in their sales data­bas­es. These are just two exam­ples that show that there can be no deny­ing the pow­er and poten­tials of big data.

Great poten­tial, not yet uti­lized

Giv­en its capa­bil­i­ty to gen­er­ate new and pow­er­ful insights, it is very like­ly that big data has the poten­tial to have major impact on the com­mu­ni­ca­tions dis­ci­pline, too. How­ev­er, tak­ing a look at the sta­tus quo in our com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sion, this trans­for­ma­tion is not yet in full swing. The lat­est results of the Euro­pean Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Mon­i­tor (ECM) reveal an inter­est­ing con­trast – while 72.3% of comms pro­fes­sion­als believe that big data will change the PR pro­fes­sion in the future, only 21.2% of com­mu­ni­ca­tions depart­ments or agen­cies have already imple­ment­ed big data activ­i­ties (see fig­ure). So, clear­ly, there is high aware­ness of big data’s rel­e­vance, but it’s real val­ue add for PR and cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions has yet to be found. Big data has not ful­ly entered the pro­fes­sion. Why is that? A fear of data and num­bers is sure­ly not the rea­son.

Big num­bers instead of big data

While big data seems to remain unchar­tered ter­ri­to­ry for the major­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tions depart­ments, our pro­fes­sion is well expe­ri­enced in deal­ing with big num­bers. In fact, we were and still are con­duct­ing huge pub­lic opin­ion sur­veys, brand aware­ness stud­ies and employ­ee feed­back sur­veys based on large data sets. These not only enable com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sion­als to gain insights on rep­u­ta­tion or brand image but also help set the com­mu­ni­ca­tions agen­da. Big num­bers also sup­port us in prov­ing our val­ue add to the orga­ni­za­tions we work for. Look­ing back, big num­bers have played a major role in the pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Big data, how­ev­er, is not only slight­ly dif­fer­ent, but still fair­ly new to our pro­fes­sion.

It’s not just size that mat­ters

In con­trast to big num­bers, big data can­not be reduced to its size. Rather, big data refers to con­tin­u­ous, real-time data streams that are huge and com­plex – and often also volatile, diverse and unstruc­tured in nature. Through its sheer vol­ume, diver­si­ty, speed, and range, big data pro­vides a great vari­ety of oppor­tu­ni­ties for com­mu­ni­ca­tors. Big data in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and rep­u­ta­tion man­age­ment helps pro­fes­sion­als iden­ti­fy dig­i­tal influ­encers and opin­ion lead­ers and lets them engage with online com­mu­ni­ties. Big data also offers use­ful infor­ma­tion about the mar­ket, cus­tomer and media sen­ti­ments, com­peti­tors and more. Tak­ing my own depart­ment as an exam­ple, we have estab­lished a real-time issues mon­i­tor­ing tool that pro­vides analy­ses of inter­na­tion­al online media cov­er­age on top­ics rel­e­vant to our com­pa­ny. This pow­er­ful mon­i­tor­ing tool enables us to cre­ate sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness. Sup­ple­ment­ed by big num­bers, big data can help comms pro­fes­sion­als fine-tune their PR tac­tics. The big data / big num­bers com­bi­na­tion is pow­er­ful, but is it suf­fi­cient to serve as the base­line for strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tion? Let’s take a look at what I refer to as “small data” to help answer that ques­tion.

Qual­i­ty, not quan­ti­ty

Small data, in con­trast to big data, is char­ac­ter­ized by its rather lim­it­ed vol­ume, non-con­tin­u­ous col­lec­tion, and nar­row scope. It is gained through inter­views and direct exchange with peers. Usu­al­ly, it is gen­er­at­ed to answer spe­cif­ic ques­tions and cre­ate tar­get­ed insights – thus it is of high qual­i­ty. At Deutsche Post DHL Group, for instance, we engage with our stake­hold­ers in stake­hold­er dia­logue for­mats. This enables us to receive their feed­back on top­ics of rel­e­vance to them and to us as a com­pa­ny, e.g. on sus­tain­abil­i­ty top­ics, and to incor­po­rate their views into our actions. By doing so – and I refer to the sci­en­tist Rob Kitchin here – we seek to mine gold from work­ing a nar­row seam (small data). This stands in con­trast to extract­ing gold nuggets through open-pit min­ing, scoop­ing up and siev­ing huge tracts of land (big data). But, why do we need to mine gold from a nar­row seam at all?

Small data to cre­ate cor­po­rate empa­thy

Dri­ven by the evo­lu­tion from one-direc­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels to social media chan­nels, today’s stake­hold­ers are no longer pas­sive tar­get groups but active par­tic­i­pants in the pub­lic dis­course. Mod­ern cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions, there­fore, is about the rela­tion­ship between a com­pa­ny and soci­ety. Com­pa­nies must devel­op the abil­i­ty to rec­og­nize and under­stand social issues, and inte­grate them into their posi­tion­ing. More­over, stake­hold­er expec­ta­tions must be under­stood, acknowl­edged, and appro­pri­ate­ly man­aged. This only hap­pens when we – the comms func­tion – stop talk­ing and start lis­ten­ing. That’s the moment when cor­po­rate empa­thy becomes a key fac­tor for suc­cess. The insights gen­er­at­ed by small data must there­fore inform the strate­gic agen­da in the same way that big data and big num­bers do – we need both to craft an effec­tive comms strat­e­gy.

The arti­cle is also pub­lished on Prof. Dr. Christof E. Ehrhart’s blog “Future-Proof­ing PR – Trends in Cor­po­rate Com­mu­ni­ca­tions & Sus­tain­abil­i­ty Man­age­ment”