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!


About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.
  • Sebastian

    Personally I’ve never used them as a matrix, nor been asked to use them. I agree with your points about not being any use and there being better ways. However, I do think it is an interesting reference point for companies new to PR. In 7 years, I think I’m about to calculate something along the lines of AVE for the very first time. Why, the client understands PR has value, but cannot define value for himself. We will present normal, sensible matrices demonstrating success, but I have a deeply held suspicion that AVE will carry more meaning and weight for him. We’ll see!

  • http://www.pr-consultant.co.uk Stephen Newton

    I don’t feel comfortable defending AVEs, as they are so crude, but there are limited circumstances where they are useful.

    For example, lingerie firm Ultimo manage to secure a lot of coverage in the Daily Mail by supplying pics of celebrities modelling the product. The tactic works every time: Peaches Geldof, Jenni Falconer, Mel B.

    This is unambitious PR that seeks to do no more than raise awareness of the product.

    Here it may be legitimate to compare the cost of hiring a celebrity with the cost of buying a page in the Daily Mail.

    Effective evaluation depends on setting clear goals and agreeing how progress will be measured, from the start.

  • http://www.contently-managed.com Craig McGill

    I think part of the problem is that for accountants, it’s a way of justifying the PR spend. They spend £4K a month and get £20K of coverage then it looks like a profit because they spent £4K and got material – which if taken as ads – would have cost £20K.

    It’s not great, it’s definitely not scientific (people might not read the page) but for some it works.

    It would be great though if the industry could get together and agree on good, common ROI standards that we could all use. If we all stood our ground – and the likes of COI issued guidelines on what they want for their ROI reports, perhaps that would help.

  • http://twitter.com/jimmybang James Fell

    I agree that there are defiantly limitations when using AVE’s, and especially the widely used “PR Value”, however, with no real alternative it will continue to reign. It will be interesting to see how (or if) metrics will be developed to take into account the fast changing New Media environment to create a monetary value for stuff like UGC. I think that the problem facing the formulation of this is that value is very subjective (especially within Social Media) – what one person deems influential does not necessarily translate to others opinions. I think that personally that instead of a universal metric being created we will see agencies creating there own…

  • http://www.paulstallard.wordpress.com Paul Stallard

    Superb post Stuart and sorry for the delay in leaving a comment. I totally agree with you that AVEs are a terrible way for evaluating a PR campaign. I have often found that the only clients interested in these are ones constantly looking for a way to justify their very existance rather than actually trying to achieve something.

    Stephen Newton’s comment that effective evaluation depends on setting clear goals and agreeing how progress will be measured, from the start hits the nail on the head. A piece of coverage in The Sun read by none of the target audience will have a bigger rating using AVE than a two page spread in a trade title read by all the necessary decision makers you want to get in front of. What would a client rather achieve?

    In my mind evaluating a campaign on AVEs is similar to evaluating based upon the number of press clippings achieved (regardless of where they are).

    Surely if our industry is to lose the stigma of being “fluffy” then the powers that be should also take note and start evaluating the success of campaigns in a more realistic manner.

  • http://twitter.com/jimmybang James Fell

    I agree that there are defiantly limitations when using AVE's, and especially the widely used “PR Value”, however, with no real alternative it will continue to reign. It will be interesting to see how (or if) metrics will be developed to take into account the fast changing New Media environment to create a monetary value for stuff like UGC. I think that the problem facing the formulation of this is that value is very subjective (especially within Social Media) – what one person deems influential does not necessarily translate to others opinions. I think that personally that instead of a universal metric being created we will see agencies creating there own…