Plastic not so Fantastic: How Digital Data Cleans the Oceans

(Photo: free-photos | pixabay)

Jone Frijlink, Isabella van der Vlies, Felix Bareiss & Cristiana Santos

I got 99 issues, but my PR-strategy ain’t one

Public Relations is about maintaining a good relationship with your stakeholders and can be considered a core task of corporate communication. A task that, with the rise of social media, became more turbulent and complex. As on the internet, users can discuss topics and issues in differing composition at an unprecedented rate. The place where these discussions take place, have been called issue arenas. As Luoma-aho, Tirkkonen, and Vos (2013) stated, it is not enough to merely monitor these issues at a distance; instead, organisations should actively participate in the debate. Tracking digital data provides organizations with a good opportunity to effectively monitor the issue arena and immediately respond when issues emerge. A great example is the collaboration of Meltwater and The Plastic Soup Foundation.

Cleaning the oceans while cleaning data

The overall goal of the Plastic Soup Foundation is clear and simple: ‘No plastic waste in our water!‘. Plastic waste in the oceans is a worldwide problem, thus issue arenas related to this topic can emerge worldwide too. To help the Plastic Soup Foundation effectively monitor these arenas, the market research company Meltwater analyzes digital data daily retrieved from 270.000 news sources and 30 million social media sources in 205 countries and 87 languages. With the use of machine learning they identify topic trends in real time, as well as the reach and sentiment surrounding campaigns. This way, the Plastic Soup Foundation gained insights into where and how they are mentioned, revealing stakeholders in countries of which they had no idea that they were mentioned so often. For example, when the data report showed that ‘plastic’ was a hot topic in Denmark, the Plastic Soup Foundation decided to launch a campaign earlier, jumping right into the issue arena and optimizing the effect of their campaign. This case shows how digital analytics can help in developing an optimal PR strategy.  


The case clearly indicates that the Plastic Soup Foundation and Meltwater looked at social media data. Academic emphasise the fact that although social media data is public is does not automatically mean that it can be used without permission of the users. Some even consider it unethical. However, by actively reflecting on their accountability and the consequences for the privacy of the subjects, MeltWater could still use the data in an ethical way. When taking this into account, the Plastic Soup Foundation can reap the benefits of monitoring their environment, without worrying about the privacy of their stakeholders.

Right on board

It can be considered positive that the Plastic Soup Foundation called in an expert to help gathering and analyzing digital data as Meltwater is (probably) aware of their responsibilities and ramifications of using digital data. Also, MeltWater seems to recognise the value of small data (compared to big data), as they do not focus on the size of issue arenas, but especially on their content and sentiment. Finally, when identifying issue arenas, MeltWater creates a clear picture of the context in which posts were shared, minimizing the chance that they lose their initial meaning.

Missing the boat

Although the case of the Plastic Soup Foundation is a good example to show how PR and digital data can be combined, it has its limitations as well. Online issue arenas should not be considered equal to actual public opinion. As on social media platforms, a small group of users can be very active, while the majority remains silent. The minority thus sets the tone of the discussion, making it hard to assess the actual sentiment. This has been referred to as the ‘vocal minority’, and should be taken into consideration when forming a PR-strategy based on digital data. Because, interpreting the online topics as equal to ‘hot topics’ in real life, might cause the Plastic Soup Foundation to miss the boat.


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