In My Opinion: Jerry Ward: It’s not a shameful act but putting a dollar sign on your press coverage misses the point

IT is a question that has challenged the PR industry for the past few decades – how do you value the coverage generated by your media relations? As Scott Douglas writes, ‘Bang for your buck – why measuring the value of news coverage isn’t a shameful act’, the simplest way has been to physically measure it and multiply it by the advertising rate. Bingo, a lottery-sized win of advertising value.

As someone who has been doing this for the past 20 years, I plead guilty of the crime of ‘proving’ the worth of my clients’ PR to the ‘value’ of many millions. The good news, for me at least, is that it’s not a criminal offence (yet) and I fully expect to carry on doing this for the next few years as clients want to demonstrate to their management teams how much they have saved or generated.

But here is the simple truth – not one of the people for whom I have produced an AVE actually believes its worth. The AVE (advertising value equivalents) is always for the benefit of someone else, be it the chief executive or the board, but rarely for the PR practitioner themselves.

In the rush to demonstrate the value of PR, the industry adopted a metric which I believe significantly undervalues the real impact of public relations activity. I cannot think of any other industry which chooses to use the data of an associated, but in many ways, competitor activity, as its method of demonstrating its efficacy.

In doing so, it condemns PR to a secondary enterprise, reinforcing advertising as a primary channel for increasing sales, building brands and establishing reputation.

But public relations is NOT advertising. Paradoxically, it involves a more complex range of tools, using language and ideas to engage individuals and communities, to build reputation which can deliver increased sales, or greater brand awareness, or political and policy engagement. Its potential weakness is that, unlike advertising, it has little control of how, when and where the message appears and how it is open to re-interpretation.

People who run companies and organisations are smart. If you tell them that your PR campaign, costing £10 000, delivers an advertising value of £250 000, they should, by rights, decide to switch their advertising budget to your PR team. A quarter of a million pounds of advertising only buys you, erm, a quarter of million pounds of advertising, but PR, well, it’s super value really. And yet how many of PR teams see the kind of budgets that advertising commands?

AVEs measure outputs, not outcomes. They measure the volume of coverage generated in relation to a notional financial return on investment (ROI), but not the impact – the increased sales, the greater brand awareness or the change in behaviour. Whilst these may not be as quick and simple to measure, they do reflect the true value of PR.

And why should PR not have access to the ‘keys to the safe’, the kind of information that clients could use to really measure PR success? Advertising and marketing already have this as part of their value proposition.

And if you add to that the inconsistent use of the data, it all looks decidedly shaky. Last year, the Central Office of Information asked five agencies to measure the same campaign. Not surprisingly, they got five different cost figures for the ROI, with a considerable difference between the highest and lowest.

The use of the multiplier – editorial is somewhere between three to seven times the value of advertising – is something I have found very hard to justify. There has never been any evidence to support it, other than “it has always been this way”. Quite the opposite, recent research in the US, suggest there is no difference at all between the way editorial or advertising messages influence consumer behaviour.

But what may actually do it for the AVE is that it no longer works even on its own terms. It cannot be used in an online or social media environment, which is now such a crucial part of the PR proposition. And significantly, we are experiencing cases of clients who are generating more coverage than ever, but finding their year-on-year AVE figure declining, a reflection of the plummeting in ad rates. Try explaining that one to your chief executive.

Yet the AVE refuses to lie down and die, and whether we like it or not, will be with us for some time to come. As a board member of the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC), the global trade body for communications measurement, I have been closely involved over the last three years in initiatives which have lead to the development of the Barcelona Principles and, yes, one of the objectives is to see the end of the use of the AVE.

But this is not something that can be imposed by powerful sections of the PR industry killing off the AVE. This will only happen when there are metrics universally accepted and recognised by both clients and PR practitioners alike.

AMEC has harnessed the combined weight of the Public Relations Consultants Associations and Chartered Institute of Public Relations in the UK, the PRSA and the Institute for PR in the US, as well as representative groups across the globe in a challenge to find universal, transferable, simple and understandable ways of measuring the effectiveness of PR.

Press Data has contributed to this discussion, representing the interests of our clients in Scotland and across the UK.

The challenge is this: in an environment where the opportunities for promoting the business goals of our customers develop through channels which only a few years ago never existed and to communities who we could never reach, we need to develop tools which demonstrate the real impact that we, as communications professionals, can make.

The web, and in particular the world of social media, is the instinctive constituency of the PR industry. It is a land where the use of language, the communication of ideas and the ability to identify the connections between communities is the foundation of its structure. This is the natural place for PR, not advertising or marketing, and we should seize the opportunity.

Do not sell yourself short by claiming a quick buck for your customers. We have to find a better way to prove this value. If we don’t, someone else will.

Jerry Ward is managing director of Edinburgh-based Press Data, an UK market leader in monitoring and evaluation of media coverage and a board director of AMEC, the global body for the measurement and evaluation of communication.