Jan 21st 2020

Robust, reliable, relevant: harnessing data to power the news agenda

Eight out of ten business leaders would trust a claim from the media if it was supported by data. This is an entirely fabricated statistic, but it illustrates the impact facts and figures can have on the level of trust we place in what we see, read or hear. In a fragmented media landscape characterised by falsehoods and mistrust, evidence and solid data have never been more important. More important to readers and to journalists, as well as to brands and businesses wanting to capitalise on data and get their voices heard.

A growing number of brands are leveraging data-led content to differentiate themselves in the market, drive news and thought leadership, and inform marketing strategies. However, this also means that journalists and editors are receiving a growing number of data-led press releases, resulting in an overcrowded market. For media announcements to make column inches, data must be robust, stand up to scrutiny and be presented in the right way to resonate with the right target audiences.

So what makes ‘good’ data? How can brands find and use data to support their message? And how can they present it to influencers to gain traction with the media and readers who matter?

These were among the questions asked and answered at Babel’s panel event, which featured editors and journalists from the likes of the FT, CNBC and the Guardian, as well as marketers and data specialists. The event kicked off with easily the most popular question for every brand, PR or marketing professional – and perhaps the most difficult for influencers to answer succinctly: What are the media looking for when it comes to data?

Trade standards

The range of requirements, unsurprisingly, is “enormous” commented Martin Stabe, Data Editor at the Financial Times, and “depends entirely on what you mean by media.” Tabloid press, for instance, are far more likely (due to limited column inches), to take NIBs and condensed stories, meaning brands can “get away with being a little more fluffy” with detail, according to Toni Sekinah, a freelance journalist and former Senior Features Editor at DataIQ. When it comes to trade and B2B publications, on the other hand, data-led content is held to a much higher standard, Sekinah continued.

However, the ‘fluffy’ element of tabloids’ use of data does not relate to its accuracy, instead, Sekinah explained, it merely meant that details such as sample size (although important to share with the journalist) were less relevant for the reader and wouldn’t always make the cut. Accuracy of data, on the other hand, is crucial.

A story “is only as good as the accuracy of the data,” commented The Guardian’s Data Projects Editor, Caelainn Barr. Data “is at the heart of all the stories we work with,” she continued, which means that her team regularly process and analyse this content, identifying topline stats in data sets. This latter point is important; many media influencers aren’t interested in simply being fed pre-packaged press releases. Instead, “having raw data is where it’s at.” This isn’t always easy to obtain, as many companies are built on data and are therefore reticent to give away the very thing which gives them value. The solution, according to Barr, is to embark on a two-way discussion which is mutually beneficial to both parties.

The raw data feed

The need for raw data was echoed by the other panellists. “The granularity aspect [of raw data] is so important [as a component of a good story],” commented Stabe, who prefers to receive “raw data in as granular a form as possible” from journalists, over a “pre-packaged summary.” Many journalists will likely push back if they receive the latter. “We absolutely don’t want charts – we make those ourselves,” he explained, with raw data providing the starting point for the FT’s own internal analysis. The same goes for infographics, which many journalists and editors will receive from brands as part of this pre-packaged data-led content. According to Stabe, this approach is “a waste of time”, as no credible publication will simply re-publish a graphic they’ve just been handed.

Sharing raw data with media also allows influencers to check the credibility of the information – crucial in an era of fake news and dwindling trust in media and traditional societal institutions. When editing news content she’s received, panellist Lucy Handley, a contributor to CNBC, will often go back to the brand or agency which has sent it to double check any potential inaccuracies, or elements she feels are “instinctively wrong.” Again, a strong two-way relationship and open, prompt discussion between the two parties are essential to obtaining and verifying accurate content.

Know your influencer

It’s not just delving deeper into the data details that a relationship such as this will facilitate. Many journalists simply don’t have the time or resources to comb through tons of raw data and graphics. “I’m not a data scientist,” Handley continued, “it’s not very easy for me to get those trends out of those spreadsheets”. This view seems to be shared by Barr, who earlier commented on the “massive amount” of pressure journalists are under, meaning they will often rely on press releases for data insights.

For brands and agencies, then, knowing your influencers is essential. Content must be tailored to the individual journalist or sector need, and a solid knowledge of the media landscape, in addition to strong relationships with key figures, will influence decisions on whether to share reams of raw data or construct more digestible information. Either way, brands and their representatives should also be available to offer clarification and guidance to media – and ensure they can prove the claims and credibility of their data.

 

How can brands create effective data-led stories in the first place? Because, while many are doing it, far fewer are doing it well. Keep an eye out for part II of our data event wrap-up, in which we share insights from our panellists on crafting an effective narrative, and on why data is the engine oil powering the news agenda…