Master of Communications Management

Taking the fear out of data: The journey towards data-driven communications

Sabrina Lavi is a McMaster-Syracuse Master of Communications Management candidate, member of the editorial committee for the McMaster Journal of Communication, and writer for Carbonite + Webroot.


Data. The four-letter word radiates through corporate boardrooms, executive suites and business development and marketing teams. The word conjures up visualizations of numbers and equations scattered across a computer screen. What it normally doesn’t do is find itself under consideration by communications professionals.


I’ll be the first to admit, as a communications professional, the use of data is the last thing I ever thought I would want to use let alone see value in. Who needs data when you have the power of the written word?


Well, think again.



Data overtook oil as the most valuable commodity. For many occupations, data analytics is all too commonplace. Engineering, medicine and the sciences to name a few. These professions rely on the use of data to make decisions — sometimes critical decisions that affect the design of a building. Other times, the use of data could mean the difference between life and death.


But what about its application in the traditional professions that pride themselves on the human element — like communications?


Data can enhance the critical functions of communications — advancing predictive modeling, enhancing our understanding of stakeholders and even optimizing the talent within teams or departments.


So, the million-dollar question is: why isn’t data being more widely used within communications?


The greatest barrier to data success is not the numbers themselves or the technology platforms in which they operate, but rather a lack of knowledge. This leads to mistrust. It can also lead to a slow decline in the profession itself. If most industries are incorporating some form of analytics — whether used in a predictive or reactive capacity — what does that mean for communications if most organizations don’t?



Whether practitioners realize it or not, data analytics can do wonders to sharpen messaging and brand. Data can help us predict behaviour, preferences and sentiment. This leads to better decision-making that’s grounded in concrete insights, as opposed to personal whims and selective biases. Whether we choose to address it or not, our stakeholders, the people who are trying to reach internally to our organization or outside of it are increasingly engaging online to share their thoughts, sentiments and opinions. If we aren’t paying attention to where the message is being shared, how can we be prepared to engage with them?


But perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to infuse data into the practice of communications comes down to value. Data can act as a conduit to push the communications function to a revenue-generating one as opposed to a cost center.


Communications can achieve this by using data in a predictive capacity — listening for stakeholder conversations, getting a head of potential issues or analyzing ongoing macro trends that may adversely affect the organization. This is a fundamental shift that will flip the profession on its head.


And it’s already happening.



Believe it or not, there are communications teams using data analytics to level up their digital prowess and boost their relationship-building capabilities while constantly looking out for their organizations’ reputation. These communications leaders and their teams have successfully elevated their value by introducing data-driven capabilities that position their functionality as a prime business partner and facet of the organization.


It’s made them indispensable.


But how does a communications team achieve this level of digital agility? What are the steps successful communications leaders are taking to get there?


These are all valid questions. These questions and more will be the focus of my upcoming capstone research project as part of my communications management degree.


I want to delve into the strategies, processes, capabilities and talent that led to the use of CommTech, the incorporation of digital techniques, tools and most notably, data to elevate the level of engagement among stakeholders and the creation and delivery of content that is well-received and influences behavior.


Over the course of the next year, my goal is to dive headfirst into the literature, and interview communications leaders to get a better sense of how CommTech can be achieved in varying degrees based on the size and scope of an organization’s communications function.


My end goal? Create a roadmap, a blueprint for other organizations to emulate. Through a multi-case study approach, I want to provide communications leaders contextual examples to help better prepare them to use the tools and knowledge at their disposal to incorporate data into their strategy and day-to-day communications practice.


Data is the future for many occupations — communications included. By embracing it, the profession stands a real chance of shifting its value proposition not only when it comes to reputation and relationship management, but also among business and executive leaders.