Banning AVEs in PR..? You Canute be serious

Over the last week or two there’s been a proper little shitstorm (someone else’s word for it, not mine) blowing because of a document produced by media monitoring and online sentiment analysis firm Meltwater.

Some of it has been a bit hysterical if you ask me.

But before I go any further, I want to state for the record that in the past Meltwater was a client of a PR consultancy I worked at; I managed their PR account. I have also been a Meltwater customer in the past. But I have had no dealings with the company or any of its staff for a number of years.

Back to the aforementioned shitstorm.

Ball of confusion

The document from Meltwater focused on the use of AVE (advertising value equivalents) as a way of measuring PR effectiveness and return on investment (ROI) in PR activity. In short, it works a bit like this – if you got your client some coverage in a newspaper and that coverage took up about half a page, then find out how much it would have cost to put an advert on that half a page. Then multiply that cost by three (or five, or eight, or magic beans, who cares). Why multiply it..? Because PR is more effective than advertising, and therefore more value is derived from it. Which is why companies read out press releases in those little commercial breaks between the TV shows you watch … oh, wait, I think I made that last bit up.

The shitstorm (there’s that word again) struck when some people who work in the PR industry who do not like AVEs, because they are unscientific and silly (the AVEs, not the PR people… ), took issue with Meltwater saying AVEs can be used as a way of measuring ROI in PR.

The things is, there are no universally used and accepted metrics for assessing ROI in PR. That’s one of the biggest weaknesses facing PR. It’s no surprise it’s a very touchy subject, because in these increasingly digital times, when everything can be measured, the inability to directly link a piece of PR activity to a tangible financial benefit is a perceived weakness for many. There’s a set of guidelines known as the Barcelona Principles which many in the PR sector adhere to (with a fervour that frankly makes me a little uncomfortable … it’s not a belief system… or is it?) as the future of measuring PR effectiveness. I’m no expert, and you can look it up online if you feel so inclined, but the Barcelona Principles strike me as a great attempt at defining the problem; I’m just not sure they are the answer. I’m also not sure a great many businesses hiring PR practitioners, whether as agency teams, solo service providers, or in-house resources, will have the patience or the interest in something as nebulous as “measurement must focus on “conversation” and “communities” not just “coverage”..”

Pass me my slide rule – I’m off to measure a conversation.

Anyway, back to the skitsnack (hej Sverige… kan du höra mig?).

Yours truly, angry mob

Things got a bit febrile in the old Twittersphere on Friday, with a lot of noise being made by a small number of PR practitioners (and others) all sounding off quite vociferously about how truly awful it was that Meltwater should be giving advice on how to measure AVEs, how truly truly awful AVEs are, and how truly truly truly awful anyone using AVEs must therefore be.

It all got a little bit angry mob, which is never anything other than ugly, and absolutely never productive.

I was saddened (although not much, in truth) to see some leading figures in the PR world among the mob’s chief agitators. People who ought to understand that PR agencies are at the beck and call of their clients, and that if those clients want AVE figures, then the agency will provide them – to do otherwise might put a client relationship in jeopardy.

These are still trying economic times in many parts of the UK and in many business sectors – not everyone is in London or the south east, and not everyone is working with clients who operate in booming sectors. When it comes to client/agency relationships, rocking the boat is a privilege few get to enjoy; you have to be big and influential to get away with it, usually.

I wondered what it might feel like to be the head of an agency that isn’t in London, that isn’t experiencing an economic upturn, watching others in the industry heaping scorn upon you from their privileged positions. I wondered what it would be like if you are constantly compromising on what you’d like to do in order to keep clients happy (or just to keep them) and seeing one of the things you have to do being so openly mocked.

Are there better ways to measure PR effectiveness than AVEs? Yes, probably. Although that really depends on what your definition of effective is in the case of the PR activity you are undertaking. However, I don’t think it’s good enough for those in a privileged position to be quite so scathing about something that only exists because of the demand for it from clients.

Calls to stamp it out are as ludicrous as they are unhelpful, and hint at a fundamental failure to understand the economics and mechanics of the PR industry. Which is just a bit mind boggling given that much of the ardent criticism was coming from people who have worked in the PR industry for a very long time and done very well. Maybe they’ve had it too good for too long. Maybe it’s easier to point and laugh, or yell and shout, than it is to offer constructive, actionable advice on how to get your clients to give up their AVE dependency.

Back to basics

Now, about five years ago one of my PR clients was a large and well-known bank. At a kick-off meeting we discussed – among other things – reporting … how would the client like to measure the progress we were intending to achieve? We talked about a range of options and measures, but in the end the client was resolute; they wanted a monthly AVE figure that could be easily circulated to other stakeholders within the bank who wouldn’t understand the subtleties of changed perceptions or share of voice, or whatever, but for whom a simple number was the lingua franca.

It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the bit in the book The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where a supercomputer is asked what’s the answer to question of life, the universe and everything (or words to that effect) – the answer is 42, apparently. A supremely unhelpful answer derived from not understanding the question; if you don’t measure the correct outcome, you’ll never know what progress you’re making.

It also reminds me of an old saying … he who pays the piper calls the tune.

If I want something and have the money to pay for it, whether it’s AVEs or a rendition of Scotland the Brave, you won’t change my mind by taking away someone’s bagpipes, or trying to ban AVEs (what a laughable idea that is when you see it written down).

There will always be other pipers. There will always be other PR agencies … more interested in servicing clients and saying yes to everything than they are with educating their clients.

It’s basic supply and demand.

Denying that reality is a bit like trying to turn back the tide by force of your own puffed up ego.


Additional reading – Explaining PR’s Barcelona Principles