“Visual language has the potential for increasing ‘human bandwidth'—the capacity to take in and more efficiently synthesize large amounts of new information."
–Robert E. Horn, Stanford University Center for the Study of Language and Information
Ad agencies have traditionally been focused on telling stories and eliciting emotion, but the success of slick commercials and parroting slogans is sliding as consumers becoming more savvy, more content-flooded and increasingly short on time.
These days, it seems public relations firms are gaining the edge over advertising agencies, as data moves to the front-and-centre of communications campaigns. It goes beyond persuasive copy and gives people the true numbers and fact-based reporting, starting conversations online and engaging the public with interactivity. Visualizing data takes it one step further; displaying the information in ways that allow the brain to absorb a vast array of information in a short amount of time.
Reveals hidden patterns and trends within data
Allows organizations and businesses to make sense of the environments in which they operate
Informs stakeholders, employees and target audiences
Makes it easy to absorb a lot of material at a glance
Is eye-catching, attention-grabbing and beautiful
Can be interactive, allowing users to input their own information or zero in on what is most relevant to them
Is ideal for social-network sharing
Brings dormant data to life
Let’s take a look at some examples of PR approaches that lead with data; an entire communications strategy by a global nonprofit, and one specific campaign by a multinational corporation. Both are great examples of how information (whether statistics, aggregates or factoids) can be put to work.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
International nonprofits were quick to hop onboard the dataviz train, and now most large scale organizations are actively using data as part of their online messaging; making visualizations that help policymakers and the general public understand the true scope of the issues and to communicate impact.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation hit the nail on the head when they wrote: “Around the world, institutions are maximizing their impact by becoming increasingly transparent. This follows a fundamental truth: that access to information and data fosters effective collaboration.”
“Bill is about numbers,” explains Roy Steiner, a scientist and entrepreneur who has worked with Gates, “He wants to see the data. He values data more than ideology,"
The Gates Foundation creates infographics targeting to a specific cause, with an emphasis on factual information that supports the foundation’s goals.
They also create an annual letter that amalgamates data, numbers, charts and photos, to ensure that the reading experience is engaging in every sense of the word.
They leverage social media extremely well, creating snackable bits of information, either in the form of short videos or infographic tiles. Check out their Common Core campaign, which is all about laying the building blocks of a solid education for students in North America.
The foundation has managed to bring many subjects to the forefront of international media, including the eradication of malaria, the challenge of reducing maternal mortality, or the importance of mobile payments in developing countries.
NB: With the avalanche of information in everyone’s social media feed, visuals make a huge difference in getting the message across.
Let’s zero in on a specific PR problem now, and see how dataviz helped solve it. GE Aviation had a complex situation to communicate to both stakeholders and the general public; they wanted to invest time and resources into introducing new flightpaths worldwide and needed to make a case for it. They had collected a lot of data about the impact of the new flightpaths: they would save 12.9 million gallons of fuel, $65.6 million and 747 days in time and money for airlines. The reduced CO2 emissions would be the equivalent to planting 1,384,095 trees.
To help make this point, they created an infographic showcasing the data in a visually compelling way; helping GE Aviation convey a big issue in one picture.
Thanks to their strong communication around this topic, GE Aviation got the support they needed to start rolling out some changes.
Organizations, companies and governments are creating and collecting more data by the day. The amount of data we generate every two days is equal to the amount produced from the beginning of civilization to 2003. Clients’ and consumers’ desire to bring data to life will continue to revolutionize the public relations industry as people learn how to tell stories with their data, how to engage their audience with interactivity and how to make sense of the information they already have to make better strategic decisions. How this shapes the world of communication is up to the early adopters and those insightful enough to lead with data.