When I was a youth with an unhealthy interest in RAM, ROM and my BBC B computer, I expended as much effort on devising money-making schemes to buy more computer memory as my school friends did on perfecting free kicks. Little did I know that the price of computer storage would be one of the big underlying economic trends that would change almost everything about my world.
What is ‘the end of now’?
‘Now’, is a fabulous idea that allows us to understand the present versus the past and the future. For most of the human story, once ‘now’ had finished, only very small slivers of ‘now’ were maintained and many of those were quite deliberate acts of preservation, ‘history is always written by the victors’ etc. We built archives and libraries and museums to capture tiny impressions of ‘now’. Access to these sources was also ordinarily quite deliberate. How could we think about the history of, say, early Norman England, without the very deliberate capture of data in the Doomsday Book?
Big Data and Little Data.
In 2015, however, each one of us is throwing off fragments of ‘now’ like warp-speed Catherine wheels. These data-sparks of everyday record are not now lost in time, they exist in data storage facilities all over the world with companies and governments on an endless crusade to try and make sense of it all. It is now very, very, inexpensive for companies to store previously unimaginable quantities of data. Computer World reported recently that by 2020 there will be the equivalent of 5,200 GB of data for every man, woman and child. To put this into some sort of perspective, the most that your iphone can hold is 128 Gigabytes.
This is big data, for the communicator, though, little data still matters. At the individual level, however, what this amounts to is a recorded life where ‘now’ is very different, a person’s identity and with it their reputation, is a catalogue of data fragments which can be pieced together into a narrative – a narrative that could end up looking nothing like the actual life of the person.
Why does this mean the end of ‘now’? Well, I think it’s because ideas like ‘the papers are tomorrow’s chip paper’, or ‘a clean slate’, or ‘starting again’, are becoming simply impossible.
The idea of putting the past behind you is, well, behind you.
This means big changes for everyone but, in my little part of the forest, communications, it has specific implications. Little data can do big damage.
Why does this matter to me and to my clients?
What this means for communications professionals and for their clients is, bluntly, more work; monitoring; cataloguing and understanding tech. The first two are protocols that everyone managing a reputation ought to have in place in one form or another. The latter is about professional development – it is neither cute nor quirky for your comms person to be confused by tech – it is our job to understand the way that tech works in the way that it was our job 70 years ago to understand how newspaper offices and distribution networks operated. And this doesn’t just mean going on a course about twitter, this means understanding how data security works in your organisation, understanding Sharepoint, Dropbox, and cloud based storage. This might sound geeky, partly because it is, but I know that I couldn’t provide the advice I do without knowing how these things work. They are the hidden wiring of every business.
What should I do about it?
Now, on to the meat and drink of the comms work. First, monitoring. Whenever I take on a new client for communications coaching, one of the first things we do is to thoroughly analyse their online presence, their digital persona if you like. This is monitoring taken to its extreme. You, the comms team, have to look at every possible source and, like Waking the Dead, reconstruct your client’s person using the evidence that is available online. There is often a lot of it. You will be surprised by the extent of what you locate. You then need to tag and catalogue these findings into a database so that you can be prepared to rebut anything which requires it. You should not leave this to chance.
Four practical steps you can take.
So, here are four practical steps you can take:
- Have a joint workshop between your comms team, your agencies and your IT team with an agenda that facilitates sharing of experience.
- Reassess the monitoring you have in place with a particular focus on your key spokespeople.
- Train your staff about the reality of their online presence, for example, Storeys runs a course called ‘avoiding pickles’, which does just this.
- Review the professional development goals of your comms team and make sure that there is tech training in there.
The end of ‘now’ is a massive change for people who communicate and you need to make sure that, if you’re advising, you understand its implications, and if you are the end-customer, that your advisers get this. As I said before, little data can do big damage.