If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' goes the mantra that's usually not a bad way of evaluating systems and institutions, but the use of advertising value equivalents (AVEs) to measure the success of public relations campaigns seems curiously exempt.
In use for decades, AVEs are regarded as broken by many corporate communications departments, public relations agencies and measurement experts but their use persists stubbornly.
Now change is on the way. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations is to no longer ascribe any value in its annual awards to the measurement of entries via AVEs.
And an alternative system will be launched this Spring by the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) and the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO).
AVEs ascribe a value to media coverage based on the cost of purchasing similar space and prominence for advertising, applying a multiplier, normally three, to account for the greater credibility afforded.
If it sounds a crude measure, that's exactly what AVEs are. In their purest form, they give exactly the same value for the same volume and prominence of coverage, regardless of favourability or tone.
Stories that receive copious coverage are rewarded with high AVEs, while lower-volume but more influential articles receive lower scores.
A single article may be seen as a sign of success by a PR agency or in-house corporate communications team yet count for little in AVE terms.
And there are no points under the AVE system for keeping stories out of newspapers, which might be the goal of a campaign.
Pros and cons
'AVEs are trying to achieve the right thing because they're trying to put a value on the efforts of PR but they do it very badly,' says Marcus Gault, managing director of Insight, the media monitoring and research arm of Precise. 'The main problem is that an AVE does not account for the quality of a mention or editorial coverage of an organisation.
'If there's a full-page article in The Sun and the headline is Eurostar: what a dream service,' AVEs would consider that to have the same value as a full-page article saying Eurostar: the worst train service in Europe.
'They'd take no account of the nature of the mention at all. They'd both be valued at, say £50,000, which is nonsense because one would be worth an awful lot more than that as independent editorial praising the company, while the other one is worth nothing and actually has negative value for the brand.'
Philip Sheldrake, a founding partner of venture marketing firm Meanwhile, agrees. 'An AVE is a specious sum based on false assumptions using an unfounded multiplier that only addresses a fraction of the PR domain,' he says. 'Other than that it's a brilliant concept.'
It's a view shared by the CIPR, with chief executive Jane Wilson maintaining AVEs are inherently flawed because they measure outputs, not outcomes.
Wilson explains: 'They're not effective because they don't actually measure a business result. They just talk about the value of PR in terms of what it would cost. A marketing person would never talk about an advertising campaign in that way. AVEs are meaningless. They're simplistic, easy shorthand that don't go any way towards explaining how public relations impacts on a business.'
AVEs can also be seen as belonging to another era, with the days long gone when public relations people could persuade press contacts to use stories and know their bosses would not ask how coverage was achieved.
'We live in a world now where every expenditure has to have a matching return on investment and chief executives have dashboards informing their strategies and their next move,' says Wilson. 'They want to know who around the table is making them happen and I just don't think it's enough to say Listen to the thud of cuttings hitting the table.'
So what should replace this derided measure? The main divide is between menders who'd like to retain AVEs with changes to remedy their faults and reformers who want to do away with them altogether.
Gault believes AVEs' main fault can be corrected by weighting them with factors such as whether coverage is positive or negative, the prominence of a mention and whether a company's key messages are included.
Indeed, Precise already sells such a weighted AVE but herein lies part of the reason AVEs linger on.
'One of the challenges AVEs have is that an AVE number pretty much comes free of charge with most media monitoring services,' Gault admits.
'If you want to get weighted value then you either have to have someone internally to review the coverage for its quality or you have to pay a third party organisation such as ourselves to review the quality of the content. That's part of the barrier to adoption of a sensible metric. It involves a little bit of time or financial investment to get something more accurate.'
Simon Pritchett, director of communications agency Blue Rubicon, believes AVEs cannot survive as the primary yardstick of success as campaigns become more integrated and online monitoring tools proliferate, allowing engagement to be tracked in real time.
He feels AVEs need to be part of a more comprehensive dashboard of metrics, with public awareness of PR campaigns measured by online and offline reach and engagement ranked by favourability and the impact of press coverage and social media activity.
A blend of metrics?
Meanwhile, PR agencies need to get closer to their clients' own tracking on attitude and behaviour change and isolate the impact of communications on clients' commercial objectives.
'Those elements are the bedrock for any evaluation,' says Pritchett. 'They need to be enshrined in key performance indicators so that both the agency and the client have a shared expectation of what success looks like.'
Such detail can be complex. Indeed the PRCA, AMEC and ICCO have spent 12 months putting together their rival system.
One challenge, admits PRCA chief executive Francis Ingham, is that AVEs remain popular with financial controllers and budget chiefs as an easy way justifying PR expenditure.
'So long as clients and finance directors recognise AVEs, rather any alternative to them, they're going to continue to live,' he says. 'You can't just say AVEs are rubbish and no-one can use them because people will ignore you. We need a new global standard that can send AVEs on their way because something credible and much more effective is in its place.'
He won't give details of the new measurement, which is based on input from the PRCA's 320 PR agency, 1,000 individual and 120 UK corporate members.
Past efforts at replacing AVEs went wrong because the perpetrators were working in silos, he argues. 'You've had advertising people, agencies and in-house people all doing their own stuff but what I hope we can do now is get something with broad acceptance.
One size can't fit all
That's a hurdle that's floored other attempts, however, and some experts are sceptical that one all-encompassing solution can be found.
'What replaces AVEs is a horrible question in some respects because peoples' uses of it are so different,' says Michael Blowers, founder and owner of Media Evaluation Research, whose clients include insurer Allianz and Kent County Council.
'The objectives, practices and DNA of every organisation are unique, so their PR and marketing objectives and the key performance indicators of whatever they have to be measured by also have to be unique.
'People automatically assume there has to be a single measure which is going to work for everybody. I just don't know whether the world is that pleasant to work with.' An alternative could be to develop separate measures for distinct sectors or operations, such as financial services, though that risks swimming against the tides of transparency and accountability, with firms wanting to measure themselves against contemporaries and competitors.
Another temptation is to look for the answer online, where the desire of social media consumers to monitor their influence is spawning services such as Klout and PeerIndex enabling users to obtain scores and data on how they are perceived.
Similar services measures are available for companies, though the degree of automation varies hugely. With such services likely to become more sophisticated, maybe AVEs will simply wither away.
They'll only go with a struggle, however and therein lies the continuing problem for detractors. 'Maybe there's no such thing as a silver bullet here,' admits Blowers. 'In the meantime, you will get the hard core that still use AVEs.'