As anyone who’s studied under the broad umbrella of journalism knows, there exists a perennial, symbiotic and occasionally antagonistic relationship between those in the reporting field and those in public relations and advertising. One can’t exist without the other, sometimes much to either’s chagrin at certain points—this is one of the lasting lessons that’s always stuck out to me, learned during my senior year ethics course at Ohio University.

Attending the Poynter KSU Media Ethics Workshop at Kent State University last week was a lot like being back in college for a day—both for the fact that I was surrounded by students (along with some notable media professionals from the greater Cleveland area), and that early autumn tends to remind me of campus…at any rate, it made for a great learning opportunity I’m glad AKHIA spurred me to attend.

Because if there’s one thing that marketing and journalism professionals can largely agree upon, it’s that everyone should do their best to act ethically—and as was the theme of the day, the advent of powerful data and analytic tools has the tendency to blur the lines between ethical and unethical behavior in unexpected ways.

As Thor Wasbotten, Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at KSU, noted in his opening remarks, the advent of seemingly infinite, readily available data has changed the way that professional communicators do business. It opens new doors, new ways to tell stories, and novel paths to profitability. And at a time when the communications industry is in flux, a constant horse race for clicks and eyeballs, it can become easy for intent to go awry. “This is one of the most important days of our academic year,” Wasbotten told the audience. “Ethics underpins everything we do, and our work must be grounded in a foundation of ethics in a diverse and global society.”

Don’t Trip
Poynter’s Kelly McBride outlined three factors having unprecedented effects on journalism and communications in her session, “Watch Out: How Journalism is Changing Democracy.” Speed, volume and algorithms—each having an impact on storytelling in its many forms. The race to be first has caused news organizations to make easily avoidable mistakes, unintentionally amplifying misinformation that once loose on the Web is difficult to correct or retract (think the misidentification of two Boston Marathon bombing suspects on a splashy New York Post front page). Meanwhile, the sheer volume of published stories and the way in which computer algorithms sort them and make them prominent (or not) has altered the consumption of online news and information, and has forced organizations to think differently about how they’re getting information out there; a generation of media professionals has been trained to trick robots into propelling their stories to the widest audiences possible.

While ostensibly geared toward traditional hard news journalism, McBride’s message had equally strong implications for marketing communications. Think about the pace at which PR and marketing professionals work—speed certainly is something we’re concerned with, and we’re well aware of the challenges that volume and algorithms pose for effectively disseminating our messaging. As AKHIA’s social media team knows all too well, Facebook’s opaque algorithms pose daily challenges for marketers.

McBride noted that the speed wars are rapidly becoming unwinnable—it’s a matter of seconds, if that, between the “first” story and the dozens of others published almost simultaneously. What will win, McBride predicts, is valuable stories. “We’re now learning that better journalism produces better engagement,” she said, suggesting a “natural correction” that will occur in that regard. “We’ll still do speed, but we’ll do better storytelling.”

What’s Your Privacy Worth?
The Washington Post’s Jeremy Gilbert offered an interesting breakdown of his efforts as Director of Strategic Initiatives at the news organization, alluding to the success of Amazon. “You order something, and something else will pop up, and says ‘You need this thing, because you bought that thing.’” Gilbert said. “Amazon knows so much more about you than anyone else, they can give you something that you don’t know you need.”

Gilbert said the Washington Post is aiming to act similarly, offering users relevant content based upon their logged activity on “If we’re going to invade your privacy,” Gilbert said, “We’re going to give you a valuable product that’s worth the tradeoff.”

It’s not often you hear that line of strategic thinking articulated so clearly: we’re definitely tracking your every move on our website, and we’re going to use it to (hopefully) offer a better product. Gilbert and his fellow panelists, including representatives from the Plain Dealer and the Columbus Dispatch bounced these ideas around in “It’s in the Details: How Analytics and Data Shape New Decisions.” The ability to track user activity around websites, gaining insights about what has been clicked, shapes decision-making. The Dispatch’s Jennifer Smith Richards argued that this has enabled her paper to do “more of what matters.” All agreed that the need to balance information gleaned from powerful analytic tools with sound editorial decision making was one of most pressing issues facing the industry today.

Measuring What Matters
That idea of privacy as a commodity was echoed in a later panel, “Private Matters: Using and Fusing Data.” Gina Miller, director of customer experience for Chicago’s CBD Marketing, discussed her firm’s use of data and what constitutes the ethical use of data, focused on four points:

  • If you’re not connecting the use of data for customer benefit or value, you’ve crossed a line;
  • If you’re opening someone for risk or harm, you’ve crossed a line;
  • If you’re selling data without the customer’s knowledge or consent, you’ve crossed a line;
  • If you’re collecting data that isn’t necessary to drive your business forward, you’ve crossed a line.

The last point is especially relevant to marketers, particularly as we’re constantly told how powerful and useful data and analytics are to our industry. It’s true, and ethical considerations apply. “Many, many businesses don’t need a lot of deep, dimensional data on their customers to drive a successful business,” Miller said, adding that while data becomes readily available, marketers must ask themselves whether or not it should always be put to use.

“We want things that help us better understand, on a macro level, the world of this person,” Miller said. “What sort of content would they like to read? What kind of interests do they have? What can we do to relate to this person and bring value to them?”

Miller built on these themes in the day’s final session, “Data & Marketing: Industry Standards, Predictable Problems and Best Practice,” noting some figures: Today’s data-driven marketing economy has reached revenues of $156 billion, creating 675,000 jobs. How did this happen? In part, thanks to the implied transaction that happens when millions of consumers choose to use the many “free” digital tools at their fingertips: Twitter, Facebook, Google, and the rest. “Consumers’ access to these tools are purchased with their personal data,” Miller said.

In a climate where marketers have access to all manner of consumer data, from an ethical perspective, it has been important that the industry mindset shift. Rather than treating customers as prey, Miller says, “We take an integrated approach. We’re where you want us to be, how you want us to be. We integrate controls about whether you want to engage with us.”

Stefanie Moore, associate professor in Kent’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, summed it up on the same panel: “Public relations is to advocate for your clients in the best interest of the public.”

“In the best interest of the public.” It’s something that can and should be kept in mind by all—journalists, marketers, and everything in between—as we continue to wade into the waters of big data.