Adam discusses a number of important data ethics issues for public relations professionals, including:
- When to ethically pass on a media opportunity
- Why you need to think of the long game when it comes to data
- How to decide if you have enough data for an accurate pitch
- The ethics of data collection
Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?
So I guess I am what you would call a PR practitioner. Lately I’ve kind of evolved into a few more things, but I got my start at MSLGroup. I actually was an intern there, and then I got hired and worked on a plethora of accounts, everything from tech to healthcare, clean energy initiatives early on when I was there. My favorite of all was I got to work on the PayPal account for a while.
I found the FinTech space really cool and interesting. PayPal was a very big brand for us, and I ended up spending most of my time on PayPal. Typically, when you work at an agency you’re working on anywhere from three to five accounts and soon I was just shedding accounts and I was just doing PR for PayPal. What I learned is that I really enjoyed just focusing on that one company, really becoming the expert, really knowing it in and out. I felt more like I was an actual expert on something even though I wasn’t working for the company itself. Eventually I shifted back onto other accounts when we were no longer working with PayPal and I quickly realized I preferred working for one company. When the right opportunity arose, I moved to where I am today, Apptopia.
I really enjoy just kind of being the expert in that one area. Apptopia is competitive intelligence for the mobile app economy. Anyone who has a mobile app can benefit from us. Let’s say you’re McDonald’s, you might want to drop in on your competitors, Burger King, Wendy’s, and see what they’re doing with their mobile apps. What is working for them? What is not working for them? You can learn from their successes, but you can also learn from their mistakes by monitoring the data and what’s happening with their mobile apps.
We also sell to the financial space because people like to know what’s going on with a company’s digital assets or maybe their digital asset is everything.
What do I do at Apptopia? I started really just as media relations. They wanted to get their data out into the news. That’s what I got brought on board to do. Quickly, it became obvious that I couldn’t just email data to people. I mean yes, that works here and there, but you need context. My job morphed into writing all of our blogs. I got it going through social, send that to reporters, have something to link back to which can drive website visitors.
I ended up doing media relations and also content creation. And then just because I’m looking at the data all the time, now I’m the VP of Insights. I’m seeing data from every company in the world constantly. I live in our platform. I’m a power user of our data, and so it turned into me doing insights, content, media relations, and things of that nature. Every now and then we’ll do a big announcement, so if you want to throw corporate communications under my hat as well, that can be done.
When I first started, I was basically the only person in my department. Now we’ve grown. We’ve got a marketing team of four and someone also doing media relations with me. We’re still a small company. We’re around a 50-person company, but we’re growing and doing well. It’s exciting.
Luckily, I haven’t been faced with huge ethical crises over the course of my career so far. But I do have more of an ongoing situation that exists because of the nature of my work and with data. I often have to make the decision to pass up on the opportunity for media coverage, which, as a PR person, it’s like, “How could you ever pass up done on that?” Because our data might not necessarily fit, but then I have to pass what would be a juicy narrative.
The reason why I would want to pass up on an opportunity is because I believe in the long haul, I want to be a trusted source of data, and I don’t want to mislead people. When we say something, I want them to be able to believe it. I want them to know we mean it and that we stand behind it. I think it’s good over the long haul even if you’re missing out on a few hits.
Let me explain what I mean. Competitors of ours will sometimes jump on something where they’ve taken advantage of setting parameters. Maybe they carefully selected the timeframe of the data they’re talking about to tell a story. For example, when lockdowns were happening in March, April, and May, certain European countries like Spain, Italy, they went into lockdown, competitors of ours got media coverage on the rise of streaming.
They were saying, “There’s an increase in downloads for Netflix in these countries this week versus the week prior.” That’s true. Our data picks up on that as well. It sounds like a reasonable item to push out. I could have gotten media coverage on that potentially. But we saw this, we decided we’re not going to release anything on it because when I was looking in the data yes, week over week, I did see that increase in these European countries for Netflix and other streaming providers. But it became clear to me that the increase was actually just part of the natural ebb and flow of downloads in that country. They weren’t necessarily higher than any previous times. If you looked at a longer traunch, a longer timeline, you couldn’t pin it to the pandemic. It wasn’t specific to this week was locked down, this week wasn’t. I just didn’t feel good about saying that this caused this, because if you just zoom out a little more than one week, if you actually are like looking at the long term, it wasn’t justified.
I do that a lot. Anytime I want to look into an app, you have to just go, “What’s happening.” And then you got to zoom out and go, “How significant is this? Is it best ever, worst ever? Is it just for this period?” You’ve really got to nail down the specifics when you’re working with data.
It’s easy to say, “I’ve got this data, I’m going to frame it like this, send it to a reporter.” Now I will say, I think the good reporters dig a little further and they ask you, “Well, what about the past year? What about year-over-year?” They’ll ask you questions, especially reporters who are used to working with data more often than others. But we won’t even try. In certain situations like that, we will actively make the decision to not put it out there because we don’t feel like it’s substantial enough, or we don’t feel like we can really pin it to an event that happened.
I was in a similar situation back in 2001 with the anthrax scare working with Judy Wicks and CheckFree. We were getting calls from USA Today and others saying, “Oh my gosh, anthrax, we’re hearing from competitors that there’s a spike in people paying bills online because they’re afraid of anthrax.” We could have gotten a lot of media coverage around it, but we’re like, “It’s been two weeks, bills are sent monthly. A, we’re a big company. You’re not going to really see an overall spike. It’s going to take a while.” We would turn down the coverage that was going sensationalistic. It was definitely a difficult challenge, but it was the right thing to do.
My question is this. What’s the advice you give to PR pros when you’re facing that pressure to comment on things when you know that there’s no there there?
Play the long game because trust is everything. Once trust is eroded, it’s hard to gain it back. With data being very accessible these days, people can find out sooner or later how significant or serious something might’ve been and you can get found out pretty easily.
But I will get sent coverage that a competitor got that we didn’t get.
Every situation is different. In my situation, we provide data on more than 7 million apps, and we are a team of two people. For us to be on top of everything that could possibly happen in every moment is not possible. We’re going to get coverage that our competitors aren’t going to get. They’re going to get coverage that we’re not going to get because we see something before they see it, or they see something before we see it. This is just the natural ebb and flow in business. And yes, you bet I’m competitive. When I know something’s coming down the pike, or I anticipate something, I do try to get it out before them, but you’re going to take your losses and you just got to bet on yourself and know that at the end of the day, you’re going to get enough wins.
Invest in yourself, invest in your company, invest in the stock market. It’s smarter to play the long game.
What is that methodology you use to determine, “Ethically we have the right amount of data. We should go after this topic,” or, “We should stay away from this”?
We don’t have a checklist. A lot of the reporters we deal with, they are smart. I really try to think about the questions that they might ask. I ask “Am I wrong about this? Am I right about this?” I look at the full set of data as far back as we’re able to see. Our data goes back until January 1, 2015. I want to look at the lifetime of the data. I want to look at did they do marketing or advertising campaigns or something else? I just want to understand what I am putting out into the world and do I believe it.
I’ve been working here over four years so I feel pretty good about my senses now. But if I’m not sure about anything, I will run it by other people in the company. It could be anyone just as a sounding board and I tell them “I’m thinking about saying this. Do you believe it?” And then I ask them to poke holes in it.
I’ll give you an example. Things are a little different now that the pandemic has taken hold, but at one point in time, our data in the United States said that Lyft was closing the gap with Uber in terms of daily active users, not necessarily rides booked, just daily active users of the app. So people opening the app on a daily basis. Lyft was on pace to surpass Uber. This was a big claim, but I wasn’t sure.
Because at the end of the day, our data is estimated, although we feel very good about it. We actually got a big group of people together in the company, and we told them the story. We said, “Do you believe it?” If they didn’t believe it, we asked them why not and to poke holes in it. And then we realized, “Okay, this is such a big claim that we can’t just say it. We have to back it up and show people,”
Sometimes I just come out with a claim and I’m like, “You should believe it. You should trust us.” But other times with something as big as this, we actually walked through why we think our estimates were accurate in the specific situation. We even went into the 10-Qs, the publicly reported information from the companies and correlated some of our data with their actual data to prove that this is real.
The bolder the claim the greater the need to involve some more people.
Thinking beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
The spread of false or misleading information is a very large threat to society in general. These days it can spread very fast and corrections largely go unnoticed and people are set in their belief on that initial thing.
These days, you must make sure you get it right from the beginning even if it takes more time. I know urgency is very real and alive in our industry today and wanting to be first, and I feel that competitive spirit. When I first started Apptopia, my patience was not long, and I would rush things out the door and they would come back to bite me. I learned from that. Now I try to be more patient, think things through more, so try to get it right in the beginning.
As you’re going through your process, if you think something is even slightly misleading or you’re trying to get away with a little bit of a white lie, don’t do it. Play the long game. Trust is everything. Don’t erode trust. You can make data say whatever you want, but it is not worth eroding the trust.
That was another area that I was going to go into is data collection. You want to make sure what you’re doing is above board. Data is today’s oil or today’s gold, whatever you want to call it. Because of that, you want to collect it in a sustainable way, because if you don’t, you could build a house of cards. Rules and regulations in this area are evolving now, as we speak, because governmental bodies are just beginning to grasp the importance of this. Governments are slower to move than corporations.
The rules could be changing. I know in the mobile app industry, there have been companies that have either had to shut down overnight or came close to their graves and had to spend a lot of money to change how they do business to come back from it. Once you start collecting data in a certain manner, you become addicted to it, and it’s very lucrative. And then if that gets pulled out from under you, one, certain companies, like hedge funds, literally won’t be able to do business with you because it’s a publicly traded company or it doesn’t want to get in any hot water with the SEC.
You want to make sure that you’re collecting data in an above board, sustainable manner so that your business can go on unhindered. It may be harder and more expensive, but again, this is the long game you want to be playing if you’re running a business.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
Either I was never given any or I don’t remember it. So if there’s any mentors listening to this, I’m so sorry. But I will the job of a PR practitioner is hard enough. There are so many things that lie beyond our control, but that we are attached to. Do yourself a favor. Don’t twist the facts, don’t misrepresent, and in the long run, you will reduce your stress levels.
There’s a saying, “If you never lie, you don’t need to have a good memory.” I think having a good memory is certainly an asset, but the point is, if you shoot straight, you can rest easy. I should put that in my bio. Shoot straight, rest easy. The less you have to twist and the less you have to remember when a reporter’s grilling your executive over something, they don’t have to think too hard if there’s nothing to obfuscate. Make it easier on you, make it easier on your executives. If they do want to go ahead with something like that, explain to them the issues that come with slight misrepresentation even if they think it’s good for the marketing or if they think it’s good for their sales or whatever. Maybe it is, but it could also turn out into a bad quote or something hypocritical called out in the media. Avoid the inconsistencies. Especially in my world, data, people do not like when they see inconsistencies,
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
Yes. You can make data say anything you want to, but if you’re actually just trying to provide to your clients a full picture, show the full perspective. I was looking at data the other day in the coffee realm. I specifically drilled down into Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. I saw that Dunkin’ Donuts mobile app was growing at a very fast pace, much faster than Starbucks, in the United States. And I was like, “Wow.” I could have made a chart that just showed Dunkin’ Donuts outpacing Starbucks, and that would have been true, and that would have been interesting. And people would have taken that and run with it.
I almost did just that, but I looked at everything, checked all the boxes, and I saw that even though it was growing so much faster than Starbucks, when I looked at a market share graph, yes, it was increasing in market share because it was growing faster than Starbucks. Starbucks’ mobile app has been fantastic for years so they have a big head start. So even though Dunkin’ Donuts was growing so fast, its market share was very small still compared to Starbucks.
I felt like that was important to show both graphs because it gave you the full picture. “Okay, Dunkin’ Donuts is growing very fast, but still Starbucks, they are the dominant player in this space. And it’s going to take more than this for Dunkin’ Donuts to actually overcome them as it pertains to its mobile app. And so even though data can say anything you want it to say, if you’re dealing with your clients and you’re not trying to argue a point with a friend or something, bring the full picture.
Listen to the complete interview, with bonus content, here: