In 2020, data went from a niche topic to becoming the headline. And the discussion didn’t just centre around the figures themselves, but the ways in which the data was being communicated. The night the second national lockdown was announced, it felt like there was greater frustration on Twitter over the fact that graphs presented by the government weren’t framed to fit the slides (or that someone still hadn’t bought Chris Whitty a clicker) than the announcement itself!
Where does that leave comms professionals working with the data industry – or indeed with data– over the coming year? Here are the five key trends I’ll be considering in 2021:
2020 was unique in that we felt at once our most united – remember the city-wide echoes of clapping for our carers? – and most divided by our stances on everything from wearing masks and closing primary schools, to whether voter fraud influenced the US Presidential election result. The one thing that has been critical throughout – and which we have all depended on to navigate this complicated environment – is data.
What does that mean for data companies? It provides a rare opportunity to become a trusted authority on the issues where you can provide clarity. How can data companies analyse and visualise data on the most pertinent topics of the day to not just tell a story, but inform people about some of the issues affecting their lives? Putting your data expertise and tools at the heart of your communications has never had been more powerful.
Many people are becoming rightly cautious in not believing everything they see – they understand that data can be manipulated to tell the story that the author wants, rather than represent the truth. They also understand that not all data is created equally – is a survey of 1,000 global consumers representative?
What does this mean for the way we communicate? We need to make sure that when we’re using data it is part of a truly representative and a responsible narrative (yes, this isn’t new to us either but is undeniably more important if you don’t do this already!).
That means not pushing for the smallest sample with which you can get away. It also means thinking about different data sources with greater authority among your audience. A Freedom of Information request might be more authoritative when commenting on the current state of the public sector than a small survey from a research house, for example.
Although, there will of course be some people that will continue to believe the stories that fit what they want to believe…
For those organisations developing and deploying emerging technologies, like facial recognition and artificial intelligence, there’s going to be greater demands to provide transparency around how that data is being used. The public has woken up to the fact that CCTV cameras might not just be recording their movements, but actively analysing their faces; or that an algorithm may be determining the chance of their CV making the cut.
Any backlash against those companies that aren’t transparent with how data is being used can’t just disregard these concerns as those of luddites – they’re valid questions that individuals have every right to understand. How legitimate use cases are communicated will undoubtedly be a critical element of managing a company’s brand over the coming year.
Just as data has been imperative for consumers in understanding and navigating the past 12 months, the same is true for businesses. Data analytics has not only been helping organisations make quicker, informed decisions – like in supply chain management – but in completely rethinking business models to adapt to changing scenarios. With most business leaders now recognising there is greater potential for data in their organisation, in 2021 many will be looking for inspiration of how they might do that. Telling end-user stories will be critical to providing this audience will the content that will excite them and provoke an action, in what otherwise could feel like an endless sea of possibilities.
The role of data in how we consume news and tell stories has undoubtedly been transformed over the past year. It’s not just the wave of ‘armchair epidemiologists’ that have found themselves browsing graphs on Twitter or using terms like ‘flatten the curve’. I don’t believe that this will change in 2021 – certainly not in the short term as pandemic data will continue to dominate the headlines and keep us on our toes.
We should therefore continue to embrace data as part of our communications strategies in 2021, shifting the perception of PR even further from ‘spin’ to putting consumers in touch with authoritative experts that can help them dig into and navigate the big issues that matter to them.
Written by Kate Baldwin, Senior Account Director, Business & Technology