Emma Thwaites, founder of Allegory Communications, talks data and the way it influences our behaviour and business.
Data headlines are here to stay
Every aspect of modern life is defined or quantified by data. The Global Datasphere measures how much data is created and consumed every year. I find the scale mind-blowing – the total amount of new data predicted to be made in 2025 is 175ZB, up from an estimated 59ZB in 2020.
If you are struggling with visualising this (I did), I Googled it and, using my rudimentary maths, calculated that it’s the equivalent of 3.5 billion 4-door filing cabinets full of text. It’s unsurprising that we all somehow feel the presence of this invisible but massive force even if we only consciously think about it occasionally or never.
Data underpins the way we understand the world
Like water, electricity and roads, data is woven through the infrastructure of modern life. It influences our behaviour, our lifestyles and the choices we make. Data is increasingly the story – making front-page news and raising big political questions about transparency, privacy, and ownership. In March, research for the Centre for Data and Innovation showed an unprecedented increase in the use of data-driven technologies in the pandemic. This contributed to a 54% rise in UK media coverage of data-driven technologies in the first 12 months of Covid-19.
Things are moving so fast that the explosion of data often outpaces our ability to manage our response or understanding of it. As individuals, unpicking the truth from exaggerated claims and conspiracy theories woven with data is almost impossible. The issue is further exacerbated when data is taken out of context and manipulated to suit false narratives.
For leaders of complex organisations, keeping a grip on how data is being gathered, stored and processed is a mind-boggling task. According to a poll of 250+ business leaders, insight, marketing and communications professionals attending the recent DataComms 2021 conference, only 12% feel ‘very prepared’ to respond to a major crisis involving data, (e.g. a data breach), and almost a third (32%) stated that they would be ‘unprepared’.
There is work to be done. How we manage and communicate about data – something that was once primarily internal and often confined to ICT departments – is now very much an outward-facing concern. Whether we do it well or poorly can influence how trustworthy people consider our organisations to be. Data protection penalties are on the rise, climbing 40% in the past year (FT.com), and organisations are increasingly being held accountable for their use of data by regulators and consumers alike.
Corporate Digital Responsibility moving up the business agenda
Data is becoming a new battleground for those concerned with building and protecting corporate reputations. Consumers are data-aware as never before. While they may be happy to share personal data with organisations they trust, they are also ready to punish them for any misuse of data or perceived lack of transparency. Organisations that can master data, using it ethically and in an open and trustworthy manner, will win. Company reputations will be built on the strength of how seriously they take their Corporate Digital Responsibilities, at least in part.
So how can communicators master data? How can we make sure that we know and understand enough to advise our organisations confidently at the most senior levels? We must embrace it in its full capacity, understanding both the power it holds and the risks it may expose. Here is the basic process that we have developed at Allegory for achieving this:
- Carry out a comprehensive data audit. What data does your organisation hold? Where is it stored? Who has access to it? What is it used for? Is it shared? How long is it kept for, and how is it protected?
- Evaluate your data policies and procedures against your wider organisational mission, vision and values.
- Identify weak points and ensure that all data is being gathered, stored and used ethically and transparently.
- Ensure that the risks of data mis-management are fully understood and mitigated across your organisation (ie. captured and considered in your organisation’s risk register)
- Make sure that the data you need to do your job is readily available and can be accessed quickly in the event of a crisis.
- Consider publishing public-facing, data-driven dashboards – showing your organisation’s performance across key metrics.
- Make data protection an integral part of your risk register and your crisis management response.
- Ensure that people in the business understand the company’s responsibilities, processes and commitments concerning data.
- Address any skills gaps.
- Provide a strategy to communicate to your audience why your company takes CDR seriously and the measures to ensure these principles are upheld.
- Be transparent about company policy concerning data, especially what your organisation is/ is not prepared to share and how it will do so safely.
With the requisite infrastructure, skills and plans in place, you can be confident in your ability to communicate your organisation’s use of data openly and positively, both for growth and in times of crisis. As a communication strategist, being an expert in your organisation’s data policy and practice will enable you to protect and enhance its reputation.
Allegory has been working in this field for nearly ten years and is passionate about best practice in communicating about and with data. Please get in touch if you would like to find out more about our data governance workshops for communication and marketing professionals. Our mission is to use our expertise and our network to help organisations embrace data for positive change and the greater good.