September 20, 2014
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March 18, 2009

Launching a Thought-Leadership Campaign with Complex Scientific Data: PR in the Digital Universe

Can you imagine how much digital information has been created, captured and replicated by computers, telephone circuits, HDTVs and other devices? If I told you the number was 161 exabytes by 2006, would that mean anything?

As you can guess, it's an enormous amount of content. Think of it like this: It's about three million times the information in all the books ever written. That's equivalent to 12 stacks of Harry Potter books extending from the Earth to the sun. And as of 2006, it would take 20 billion high-capacity iPods to store all the information in the "digital universe."

When you think of it in those terms, 161 exabytes is a lot more tangible.

It was exactly this kind of down-to-earth messaging that drove a hugely successful PR campaign for the company that uncovered the unimaginable size of the digital universe.

The results came as the conclusion of the first-ever study of its kind. The study, released in a white paper by IDC and sponsored by IT giant EMC Corporation, also forecast the growth of information through 2010—estimated at a six-fold annual increase.

The public was captivated. In just seven days after the launch of the report, EMC scored 12 million media impressions from outlets around the world, including "Good Morning America," CNN, BusinessWeek, The New York Times, The Financial Times, MSNBC and more. The hits continue to roll in to this day, especially as EMC releases updated forecasts.

When you consider that all this media coverage surrounded an esoteric number like 161 exabytes, the results are even more astonishing.

The challenge: Reinforce EMC's position as the leader in digital storage with a groundbreaking research campaign. The seeds were sown for a study on the size of the digital universe when EMC sought to strengthen its position as a leader of digital storage. While the company has evolved to provide a wide range of IT services, storage is at the heart of everything.

"Our core focus has remained on the care and protection of information and its ability to be used and reused," explains EMC director of corporate PR Dave Farmer. "This concept is the theme we've continually used in describing the value we bring to customers."

Thinking about storage and issues related to managing information and content, execs wondered how they could drive home the point to everyday consumers that EMC is the unequivocal leader in the storage of massive, nearly inconceivable amounts of information.

That was when they came up with the idea for a study. If EMC could reach consumers in just the right way with mind-blowing but easy-to-digest research that clearly demonstrated thought leadership and innovation, they could claim their rightful spot at the top of the storage equation in the digital universe.

The strategy: Key research partnerships and creative messaging relevant to a broad range of consumers. Measuring the scale of the digital universe was possible. To do it, EMC partnered with market intelligence research firm IDC. "IDC is in the best position to measure the digital universe," Farmer explains. "Their whole business is measuring devices and applications that generate digital info. They have the data at their disposal."

The more difficult proposition, surprisingly, would be explaining it all quickly and effectively to general consumers across the country who did not have a technological background or knowledge.

That was where PR came in.

"We conceived of a survey to leverage the enormous information expansion that everyone knew was happening," Farmer says. "But we also wanted to quantify it and wrap it in a current, relevant context—and take it to the masses in a marquee way. The survey at the center of this campaign was the one we commissioned for that purpose. What we wanted to achieve was to link the EMC brand with this universal theme of information expansion and generate awareness among all the markets and audiences we serve in their work and personal lives."

It would be a groundbreaking undertaking with huge, wide-ranging implications: "No one had ever attempted a worldwide census of the amount of information created and captured," Farmer says. "It was a massive effort, with relevant implications for IT, as well as a huge societal and economic impact."

From a PR standpoint, the challenge would be explaining the results so that everyone could understand just how massive and relevant the study would be. "This was a simple concept that got complex really fast," Farmer says. "With everyone from moms to policy makers, the challenge was to relate EMC's value proposition to a wide range of audience tiers."

It would take some strategic messaging, because the information in the digital universe would be measured in exabytes, a number few consumers are familiar with: "The first thing we did was convert exabytes into gigabytes," Farmer says. "Then, we put it in popular terms so that everyone could understand what it meant. That was the basis of the strategy."

They would also have to stress the importance of EMC in a hyper-complex digital universe overloaded with information. Not surprisingly, the study confirmed this. "Another key finding was that nearly 70 percent of the digital universe will be generated by individuals—not companies—by 2010," Farmer says. "This has to do with how much capacity is consumed by YouTube videos, digital photos and other consumer platforms." However: "Organizations like EMC will be responsible for the security and reliability of 80 percent of that information."

More great strategy: Eliminating media skepticism and perceptions of self-promotion with a risky but brilliant marketing decision. Then came the difficult decision to market the study. They decided to market it not as an EMC project, but instead as an effort by IDC. This counterintuitive strategy was put in place to play down any self-promotional angles and hype that might be detected by skeptical journalists. "IDC did the study and reported the findings," Farmer says. "If it had been marketed as an EMC study, the media would have been too skeptical to use the content. Our intent was to make this as visible and widely used as possible."

It was a big risk, but it paid off brilliantly: "What we sacrificed in brand recognition was gained in reach," Farmer says. "And it worked. No less than a week after the study was released, every conference proposition from our competitors opened with the Digital Universe study as the context."

It took IDC between four and five months to complete the research and the final report, entitled, "The Expanding Digital Universe: A Forecast of Worldwide Information Growth Through 2010."

In that time, Farmer and his team, including mastermind Kevin Kempskie (whom Farmer describes as his "partner in crime"), began creating the compelling messages that would make the findings relevant for consumers.

Message creation involved tangible, consumer-friendly frames of reference such as thinking of the data in terms of all the books ever written, as well as Einstein-like thought experiments like imagining Harry Potter books stacked from the Earth to the sun. And of course, they came up with an equation to calculate the equivalent of the total digital universe if it was to be stored on units of the most popular piece of data storage so far in the 21st century: The iPod.

"We pulled together relevant stats and facts to develop tailored pitches," Farmer says.

With everything in place, they went to the media. "Our media outreach was pretty intense," Farmer says. "We developed a North American media list of nearly 1,000 targets, and almost everyone on the EMC and [partner agency] OutCast teams was assigned between 25 and 60 pitch contacts."

They offered exclusives to the AP and other outlets like The Financial Times and wrapped the campaign around these exclusive pre-briefings. "The AP story hit drove a lot of local media interest," he Farmer says. "We also did a worldwide strategic pre-briefing strategy to ensure day-one coverage with embargoed briefings with select outlets like The Business Times in Singapore and The Guardian in the UK, as well as with Internet news and bloggers."

The web and other new technologies played roles in media outreach: "We created a multimedia and social media release that included text, video, graphics and other content," Farmer says. "We also took b-roll for satellite uploading and put out a radio news release."

The results: A universe of light-speed media attention. The scope of outreach was wide ranging and ambitious: "We went everywhere from The Economist to Popular Mechanics. We hit the wires, business press, national dailies, IT press, security trades, vertical, science, consumer tech and more."

In addition: "We also reached out to thought leaders, pundits and analysts. A company of our size has a lot of these relationships already in place, but with this kind of scope, we did a lot of cold outreach too."

It was a worldwide coordinated media assault: "This was a total team effort. Along with our staff here and the help of OutCast, we had a network of international PR professionals from the company driving the message through. We definitely all came together."

By the end of the first week, they had landed more than 12 million media impressions through huge hits in the AP and "Good Morning America." As they had hoped, EMC's creative messages related with the masses. In addition, EMC's research on the digital universe continues to be cited in professional papers and conferences.

It was an historic campaign: "It far exceeded the coverage we had received for any EMC campaign in our 30-year history," Farmers says. "At the time, someone in the room said, 'This feels like a once-in-a-career opportunity.' The results bear that out."

Secrets for success: Read on as Farmer offers more tips and explains why this campaign won Gold in Research, Business/Consumer at the 2008 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations & Publicity:

1. Think broad and go beyond your target audience: Tie thought-leadership campaigns and complex research to consumers by making it relevant to their lives. "Influence your company to sponsor studies that not only have relevance to your direct audience, but that also generate the broadest appeal," he says. "You have to think of it as thought leadership. To that end, plan early and plan often. One of the things we did was take as many audiences we could think of and created the 'big aha!' This included four-to-five-word reactions that we wanted each of those audiences to have. This was a nice guiding principle in terms of illustrating what we hoped to achieve."

2. Explore and leverage cutting-edge communications technology to coordinate worldwide staff during global campaigns. "From a purely practical stance, centralize a campaign repository that's available to teams around the world," he says. "We have services called E-Room and PR Hub, which are web-based, interactive communities for PR agencies to store and house content. It's an environment where your various teams can interact and share ideas."

3. Develop targeted messaging for diverse audience types. "It can't be stressed enough that you have to match the medium to the message," he says. "Think about the type of outlet you're trying to reach and specialize the approach for maximum impact."

WINNER'S PROFILE: EMC Corporation is the world's leading developer and provider of information infrastructure technology and solutions that enable organizations of all sizes to transform the way they compete and create value from their information. Information about EMC's products and services can be found at


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