Big data: a big deal for PR students

The future is here and it's big data. It's clearly imperative upon PR students and their educators to analyze this evolving topic thoroughly.

The future is here and it's big data. PRWeek has certainly been on top of this, but two experts – MIT's Andrew McAfee and Sinan Aral of NYU's Stern School of Business – underscored it last week at the Arthur Page Society Spring Seminar.

McAfee defined “big data” as the incredible volume, velocity, and variety of information available today – so much of it that new metric names must be invented to characterize the volume. Aral demonstrated how social influence – defined as the extent to which one's peers change the likelihood that one engages in a particular behavior – is the primary driver of influence today through social conversations that have usurped the traditional influence power of organizations.

Both experts agreed that analyzing and exploiting vast new information flows can dramatically improve an organization's performance. Why? Because data-driven decisions are better than intuition-based ones. 

These are not new claims, but rather part of a growing chorus on the topic. But what does big data mean for PR students and education programs? Do the challenges and changes accompanying big data and heavy-duty analytics alter what students need to study? Are new courses required? I don't have all the answers, but it's clearly imperative upon PR students and their educators to analyze this evolving topic thoroughly. With that in mind, I left the conference last week with four initial impressions about what students should do: 

•Continue developing social media skills, as well as corresponding tactical and strategic knowledge, to better understand social influence and become a better social media conversationalist.

•Learn everything possible about big data and the related issue of analytics. New classes aren't necessary (yet?), but do read extensively on the topics and seek out opportunities to learn more in workshops and programs.

•Begin a love affair with numbers. Some students tell me that numbers are not their friends. Well, they should be. Understanding numbers is vital to preparing and managing budgets, conducting research, and understanding financial reports and big data. Take another math or statistics class.

•Continue to sharpen analytical and critical-thinking skills. The geeks can run the data, as McAfee suggested, but PR professionals must be capable of asking good questions about the data and exploring implications and relationships within the data.

Indeed, critical-thinking skills are more crucial than ever. How big data is used and how analytics are applied raise important privacy and ethical issues. Thus, while big data is indeed big and overwhelming, carefully assessing its ethical implications and advocating accordingly have long been the sweet spot of the communications profession.

Bruce Berger, Ph.D. is Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama and a member of the board of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Previously he was VP of PR at Whirlpool. His column focuses on PR students, young professionals, and education. He can be reached at

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