PR Measurement Principle Three: What Counts?

Architecting Better Data-driven Digital Experiences

PR Measurement Principle Three: What Counts?

Thanks to the detour into the semantics of communications 2.0 and a wander through miio, I arrive at the Barcelona PR Principle Three just as the debate has become quite a “kerfuffle”. Sorry, but expect a long post.

For those visitors who aren’t PR mavens, Advertising Value Equivalents are dollar values that result from a formula that tries to estimate what the coverage of a Public Relations campaign would have cost if it had been executed through advertising.

The formula is appealing to many organizations because it allows PR to present itself in what is usually a pretty great light. The ROI for PR work as evaluated through AVE almost always justifies the spend on PR.

The issue of course is that the formula is an estimate that bases a hard dollar value on a number of assumptions, and that when these assumptions are wrong, they produce an inflated result that has no real connection to the actual outcomes of Public Relations, which ultimately erodes the credibility of Public Relations measurement in general. This is a real problem of AVEs.

Chief among the dangerous assumptions is the idea that the number of people impacted by a message can be multiplied by a pass-along rate. Word of Mouth promotion certainly exists, but there is no measurement that has scientifically established what that “multiplier” value actually is, and given the variety in human exchange and all the questions of “influence” currently under discussion, it’s unlikely that a single, standard value for this will ever be possible to determine.

A second dangerous assumption is that every single “impression” or instance of a message was received positively. As was established in Principle Two, measurement must include qualitative assessment. What was the “tone” of the coverage? What about the context, and the prominence of the message? The influence or authority of the outlet or author. All of the factors will impact the impact of the message on the reader. Typically, AVE counts all “impressions” the same, without any qualification of the content and context.

Finally, AVE often uses inflated advertising rates. Advertisers negotiate their rates and acquire them below retail price.

The reason I refer to the assumptions above as dangerous is because they have the potential to mislead communicators in their practice. The point of Public Relations is to generate a positive outcome for the business. AVE may allow for ineffective communications campaigns to continue year-after-year simply because they show that they’re a great value over advertising. This is the statement of Principle Three, Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs) do not measure the value of PR and do not inform future activity.

Delivering effective and impactful communications requires developing an understanding of and connection with the people, groups and communities that you want to engage. AVE does not help with developing that understanding, or with evaluating the engagement.

However, as many in the AVE debate have pointed out, Public Relations managers need to explain and justify their work to managers with MBAs and ice-cold bottom-line perspectives. AVE lets PR managers talk in a language that executive management understands. This is why so many practicioners continue to measure AVE.

As an MBA myself, if I had no prior knowledge of this discussion, I can imagine the response I’d give to the PR manager who told me that they wanted to stop being measured on how much money his effort appeared to be saving over an alternative approach. I’d have no comprehension why. And how motivated can one be to explain why in anticipation of this response, especially if the explanation implies that all of the past reporting which PR had provided and management had accepted for all these past quarters was totally invalid?

Here’s the thing, there’s almost no-one who gets to tell their manager how they think they should be reviewed. Everyone is evaluated by the measures that their management determines to be best. Until the heavy hitters in the PR measurement conversation turn their attention away from internal debates and criticism of the PR teams that have to report AVE, and focus on reaching and convincing the business managers who perpetuate the requirement to measure performance in AVE, the need to report AVE will continue.

Until that time, if management needs a measure of performance that MBAs can understand, and the measurement community can’t reach the business with a better quantitative standard, we should strike the balance by measuring a form of AVE that doesn’t use multipliers, that uses realistic ad rates, and considers the quality of every mention.

Additionally, we should begin to shift management’s thinking by qualifying the measure as something other than “value” and by establishing what the measure does legitimately indicate. As Bruce Jefferies-Fox, Mark Weiner and Katie Paine wrote in a very helpful paper for the Institute for Public Relations in 2003: “Specifically, since AVEs are based on both circulation and media credibility, it is a reasonably good measure for the “prominence” of your news coverage. When you calculate AVEs for your entire media coverage for a given time period and then compare it to another time period, you can legitimately say whether your coverage’s prominence is increasing or decreasing. You could also compare your prominence to that of your competitors. All of these analyses are quite useful in reflecting the likely influencing power of your news coverage.”

Post script.

The effort to shift thinking in an entire organization away from a long-established standard and toward a new way of thinking is a matter of organizational change. Real, lasting organizational change must be designed and carefully executed. Real change has never been brought about purely through the vehemence of an argument for the need for that change, no matter how much merit that argument might have.