Will PR ever be free of the curse of AVEs?

Today’s PRWeek has a fantastic story saying that the UK’s Central Office of Information (COI) has recommended sweeping changes to the way in which government PR is evaluated. In particular, the COI has recommended that advertising value equivalent (AVE) be removed from the core set of mandatory metrics. The COI didn’t just decide itself to remove AVEs. It did so after extensive consultation with the 89 public relations companies on its new Public Relations Framework. These are PR agencies that have gone through an extensive vetting process to become approved suppliers for UK government and public sector PR contracts (DISCLOSURE: Wolfstar is one of the PR consultancies on the PR framework).

The COI is full of excellent PR and marketing professional’s whose job it is to ensure that the millions of pounds that the government spends on PR and marketing is spent in the very best way. In terms of spend it is one of the UK PR industry’s biggest ‘clients’. The fact that the COI has recognised how bad AVEs are should send a very strong signal to the PR industry and clients in the commercial sector.

I started my first public relations job 20 years ago and even then AVEs were a totally discredited metric. Personally I think AVEs are mainly used by weak PR people who aren’t confident, mature or strong enough to stand-up to marketing people who ask for AVEs because they are simple to understand and compare with other marketing communications spend. The fact that AVEs are intellectually vacuous seems to be irrelevant because they can hoodwink and mislead the board/C-suite with a metric with a £/$ sign in front and pretend it is something to do with ROI. It isn’t.

I will provide clients with AVEs if they insist, but only after first counselling why they don’t work and then making sure that every time I provide them they come with a health warning and accompanied by a more intelligent way of measuring and evaluating success against agreed objectives.

Last night the Wolfstar team went to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations PRide Awards. Wolfstar was nominated in three categories and was lucky enough to win the Best Use of Social Media award. I’ve just been going through the other winning case studies and was disappointed (actually no I was disgusted) to see that so many of them used AVEs as part of the measurement and evaluation. What’s even worse is that some of the entries use the even more spurious ‘PR value’. This is where they multiply the AVE by a made up number (usually three) and say that it’s because ‘editorial is worth three times as much as advertising because it’s more credible’.

How is public relations going to be taken seriously as an industry and profession if PR people aspiring to be the best of the best use such discredited measurement tools? It’s little wonder that PR is not always given the respect it deserves if we’re surrounded by those with so little understanding of their own industry. What’s even worse is that the judges let them get away with it and gave them awards! It’s the judges who have really let the PR industry down.

For next year I’d like to see the CIPR following the COI’s lead and proving that it is at the forefront of the profession by sending out a strict instruction that AVEs are not an acceptable measurement and evaluation metric for award entries. At the very least it should start a debate and consultation on the issue.

I’d welcome comments on this post as I’m sure that there are many PR people who will disagree with me – and many that will agree!