PR needs to embrace the chance to show it works

Posted on 13/11/2009


The UK’s Central Office of Information has suggested that advertising value equivalent’s (AVE) are no longer included as part of mandatory evaluation criteria when measuring how well PR campaigns perform.

And not before time!

You can read my comments either in PR Week or on the website of the company I work for. But, if like me you get excited by evaluation (or just want to understand more about the context of this debate) I thought I’d use this space to go into a bit more detail and set out what AVEs are, why they are so evil and what COI is planning to change.

Basically, some people reckon the way to evaluate if a media PR campaign works is to look at how much it would have cost to take out adverts of the same size as the coverage a campaign generated in the media. Some then go on to create a ‘editorial value’ which multiplies this amount to reflect the fact that people trust editorial more.

Sounds a bit crazy? Yes it is… and very inaccurate. There are three main problems:

1) There is no way of accurately recording the ‘value’ of pieces of coverage on BBC and other non-paid for channels, including social media.

2) There is confusion between AVEs which are based on, often rarely used and quickly outdated, rate cards and a ‘PR Value’, ‘weighted AVE’ or ‘editorial value’. This second group of measures are even more inaccurate and simply multiply the AVE by an editorial trust weighting estimated at 2.5 or 3 times AVE.

3) Despite the popularity of AVEs among some clients and widespread industry usage, just a third of communicators actually believe them to be somewhat or very effective as a measurement tool, according to an important international study.

So, the COI, as one of the largest providers (and purchasers) of PR services in the UK has suggested replacing AVEs with a cost per impact model. This is defined as the amount spent on PR divided by impact. Impact is the number of times the article is seen (reach multiplied by opportunities to see).

But this in itself may have its own drawbacks:

1) The suggested model may be open to abuse. Historically, ‘opportunities to see’ generated by a media outlet can be claim to be obtained by using a circulation figure (easily obtained from media databases) and a common multiplier – again three has become an industry standard because more than one person will traditionally read a paper or watch a TV (again, not exactly science when you consider my earlier post on YouGovStone research). And despite people having the ‘opportunity’ to see/read/hear, not everyone reads every bit of a paper or listens to every minute of a radio station.

2) It’s difficult to see how this model could be expanded to include non-media campaigns as well – including social media, online, viral, stakeholder and event campaigns, etc.

In fact there is limit on any model which essentially only examines the efficiency of PR activity in generating coverage (important as this is). In Band & Brown’s submission to COI in response to the consultation, we strongly argue that all evaluation measurement should also measure effectiveness and as such requires the inclusion of attitudinal and behavioural measurement (it’s probably only fair to point out that at the moment, we use both types of evaluation, depending on client needs/budgets).

These measures ensure that all PR activity can be evaluated – not just media coverage – and also proves that the industry is not walking away from accountability and is living up to the standards adopted elsewhere in the marketing industry. This will help PR stand up for itself alongside other marketing disciplines as part of what the head of COI news and PR calls ‘holistic evaluation’.

The paper I helped write for Band & Brown in response to COI set out five recommendations for addressing the problems above and improving the way the industry proves the real impact of public relations… let’s see if COI and the rest of the industry accepts them when the final framework is published!