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Top 5 Tips to Shape Positive PR for the Data Centre Industry

Wed 29 Nov 2023

Imagine a day without the Internet. No emails, no social media, no online banking, and no streaming services. This scenario could be a reality without data centres.

These hubs are the backbone of our technologically driven world. They are critical, but frequently misunderstood and misrepresented.

The narrative surrounding data centres in mainstream media often skews negative, overshadowing their indispensable role in modern life.

The Panorama Drama

Mainstream media portrayals, such as the controversial BBC Panorama documentary “Is the Cloud Damaging the Planet?” paint a bleak picture.

This particular documentary, widely criticised within the data centre industry, sparked a series of rebuttals that rarely find their way into mainstream outlets:

  • Stephen Beard, Global Head of Data Centres for Knight Frank, criticised the lack of balance in the BBC’s report, highlighting the industry’s efforts in reducing power and water usage and its indispensable contributions to modern connected life.

  • Aidan McAleavy, Construction Manager at BioPharma Engineering, pointed out the programme’s failure to acknowledge positive aspects like waste heat recovery and the economic benefits of data centre construction.

  • Chris Small, former Engineering Manager and Fire & Life Safety at VIRTUS Data Centres, noted the sector’s proactive stance on alternative energy sources and innovation, including the utilisation of heat rejection for district heating.

  • Anna King, Founder of Informare, called for the sector to establish its voice and control the dialogue, advocating for transparency in acknowledging the critical role of data centres in modern life.

Despite these critiques, the mainstream narrative often remains focused on the environmental and energy concerns associated with data centres.

Mark Yeeles, VP of Secure Power at Schneider Electric, said: “We are at an interesting pivot point. Those really interested in sustainability and carbon net zero are honing in on the data centre industry, raising questions about its impact on our planet. There’s a need to educate both those deeply engaged and the broader public.”

Over the last year alone, there have been several headlines published in mainstream outlets that position data centres as a scourge:

  • “Data centres use almost a fifth of Irish electricity” (BBC)

  • “Can we make the internet less power-thirsty?” (BBC)

  • “Warning AI industry could use as much energy as the Netherlands” (BBC)

  • “The dark side of the Cloud” (BBC)

  • “‘We’re mowed over’: colossal data centers are taking over the US countryside” (The Guardian)

  • “As the AI industry booms, what toll will it take on the environment?” (The Guardian)

  • “The industry more damaging to the environment than airlines” (The Telegraph)

  • “How AI tools like ChatGPT are causing water usage to skyrocket” (Evening Standard)

  • “AI’s thirst for knowledge is bad for global water supplies” (The Times)

  • “The Cloud: Is it bad for the environment?” (Newsround – An online publication written for younger audiences)

A Warm Swimming Pool, A Hot Story

Positive stories highlighting the industry’s benefits are scarce. A notable exception was the coverage of a small data centre in Devon used to heat a public swimming pool, which received attention from major news outlets, including the BBC, ITV, The Daily Mail, Evening Standard, The Guardian, and The Times.

This disparity in reporting underscores a major challenge facing the data centre industry: the need to proactively shape a balanced narrative.

“We need to take the lead rather than always be fighting these battles on the back foot,” said Andy Davis, Director of DataX Connect, on LinkedIn.

The impact of a skewed portrayal could lead to several detrimental effects on the industry. Increasingly negative public perceptions could incite more protests and lobbying against data centres, influencing public opinion and policy.

This negative press could even sway councillors and local authorities to reject planning applications for new data centre projects, hindering industry growth and innovation that modern daily life craves and thrives on.

There is a pressing need for stakeholders within the industry – from leaders to marketing teams and PR agencies – to take a proactive stance on amplifying the positive and indispensable impact of data centres. By leading the narrative, they can counteract the prevailing negative press.

Arun Shenoy, Chief Marketing Officer for Serverfarm, said: “Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the programme, the lack of clear positive messaging to the layperson is our fault as an industry. And it starts with CIOs, CTOs at both enterprise and cloud providers to begin to be super clear about the workloads, their needs and their benefits.”

Top 5 Tips to Shape Positive PR for the Data Centre Industry

As we embark on this paradigm shift, here are some essential actionable tips and insights to reframe public perception, highlight the critical value of data centres, and craft unmissable stories for the press.

1. Reframe Narratives Through Case Studies

With more eyes on the data centre industry than ever before, we are at a critical juncture, particularly concerning sustainability and carbon net zero goals.

The time is now to accurately reshape narratives that move away from a purely technical perspective to stories that the public can easily connect with and understand.

Yeeles highlighted the gap in understanding between the industry and the public, identifying two distinct groups that need to be engaged with differently.

The first group is keenly interested in the environmental impact of data centres and their role in achieving carbon net zero goals. They often have a more technical or industry-specific understanding and are concerned with how data centres manage their energy consumption and resources.

The second group, the broader public, might have little to no understanding of what data centres do. They are not typically aware of how these facilities are integral to powering the digital services they use every day, from streaming media to online banking.

An effective approach to bridging this gap is through case studies that illustrate the daily impact of data centres.

“We need to explain it and and make it understandable in a really simple way,” said Yeeles.

By demystifying the technical aspects and focusing on how data centres support everyday activities like using smartphones, streaming services, or even the critical infrastructure during the pandemic.

Crafting simple human-centric stories involves moving away from jargon and technical details that only appeal to industry insiders, towards stories that resonate with the general public and make its value more tangible and relatable.

“Data centre infrastructure supports many of the great things going on in the world. For example, surgeons and radiographers are helping cancer patients using AI. The success rate of identifying tumours with AI is around 90-95%, while traditional methods is around 55-60%,” said Yeeles.

Yeeles also pointed out the need for proactive storytelling, rather than reactive.

“We need to stay ahead by taking more control of the narrative. We have to tell the story before the story comes,” added Yeeles.

This proactive approach should involve not just anticipating public concerns and questions about data centres, but also showcasing the industry’s efforts in sustainability and their contributions to society.

2. Engage Journalists in the Right Way

At Techerati, we cover countless data centre press releases, attend numerous press events, and listen to many conference presentations.

A common trend emerges: narratives are often heavily sales-oriented, focusing more on the benefits to direct customers rather than the broader societal impact.

This approach misses the opportunity to inspire journalists and connect with the wider public as a result.

Marketing teams within the data centre industry need to rethink their communication strategy. The focus should shift away from product-centric narratives.

This involves considering what makes a compelling story from a journalist’s perspective and what the public needs to understand about the industry’s role in their daily lives. You could even contact journalists directly to get to know their needs – we like to be asked questions as much as we enjoy asking them!

3. Target the Young with Tech Truths

The data centre industry may benefit from speaking to a younger audience.

At Schneider Electric, Mark Yeeles is keen to proactively engage with the next generation of industry professionals from primary and secondary ages, through to university students, graduates and those enrolled in apprenticeship schemes.

This strategy stems from a recognition of the tech-savviness, curiosity, and transformative potential of this age group in driving industry evolution.

“They can be the masters of change. They don’t wait for traditional media to provide information, they actively search for it online and absorb it on social media,” said Yeeles.

The key is to find where the horse is drinking, rather than leading it to a trough of water you want it to drink.

By engaging with a younger audience, the industry can foster a generation that possesses a nuanced and informed understanding of data centres and its positive impact.

In essence, the drive to engage younger demographics through social media and digital channels represents more than just a public relations campaign. It is about laying the groundwork for a well-informed, engaged, and diverse audience (and workforce) of the future.

4. Opening the Doors to Data Centres

The need for transparency stems from tackling the misconceptions and knowledge gaps that surround the data centre sector.

By demystifying its operations and impacts, the industry can foster a more informed and positive public perception.

Yeeles recommended that this involves making data centres more accessible to influencers, journalists, government officials, students, and educators through facility tours and greater transparency in case studies.

Taking an inclusive approach provides first-hand insights into the industry’s workings, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of its value and challenges.

This transparency and openness does not mean that data centre operators have to disclose sensitive details of their customers, but these influential stakeholders can be given enough information to understand the critical importance of data centres in everyday life.

5. Form a United Data Centre Front

In the evolving landscape of the data centre industry, forming a collaborative ecosystem with aligned goals is key. This approach recognises the diverse stakeholders involved in the industry and the importance of their integrated roles.

Yeeles highlighted the significance of establishing an ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) cohort, bringing together decision-makers from various sectors of the data centre industry.

The goal is to create a forum for dialogue and collaborative problem-solving, focusing on critical issues such as sustainability, diversity, and carbon reduction.

By embracing varied perspectives and expertise, the industry can holistically address issues that affect its immediate environment, as well as broader societal implications.

This collective approach is pivotal for the industry’s sustainable and responsible growth.

Charting a New Course for Positive Data Centre Perceptions

The data centre industry stands at an inflection point, where the narratives shaped today will significantly influence its future.

The industry can reshape public perception and cement its role as an indispensable pillar of modern society by actively reframing these narratives through relatable case studies, engaging younger audiences, enhancing transparency, and fostering a collaborative ecosystem.

Implementing these strategies offers many benefits. It counters prevailing misconceptions, elevates the industry’s profile, builds strong relationships with journalists, and paves the way for broader acceptance and support.

Get Involved in Shaping the Future Narrative

The journey towards reshaping the public perception of data centres is not a solo endeavour.

If you are keen on being part of this transformative journey, we at Techerati are here to facilitate this dialogue.

You are invited to join us in crafting and amplifying the positive impacts of data centres. Together, we can drive the conversation forward and ensure the true value of data centres is recognised and appreciated.

Be a part of this important discourse. Contact the Techerati team today at [email protected] to explore opportunities for collaboration, thought leadership, and journalistic consultation.

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Your Voice Matters

If you have insights, opinions, or expertise related to any aspect of the technology sector that you would like to share, we want to hear from you. Please contact us at [email protected] to contribute to the ongoing dialogue in the tech community.

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