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Kicking the AVE Habit: Where We Go from Here

The recent announcement by Ogilvy PR that it is abandoning the use of Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs) in favor of value metrics is only the latest in a movement across the global public relations industry to refine and improve measurement standards.

As PRSA recently wrote in response to a Wall Street Journal article exploring progress being made to measure the value of PR, “[The global public relations industry is] beginning to devise relevant, credible and valuable global measurement standards that will help us move well beyond AVEs, which were never a very good value indicator to begin with, and have held back reforming measurement standards for a number of years.”

That’s the good news. But public relations practitioners, anxious to pursue the brave new world of better, more relevant, more valuable metrics, may nevertheless be struggling with how to find a better way. Now that public relations has pulled up anchor and is sailing briskly away from the Island of Misfit Measurements, where is it going? When we move beyond AVEs, where are we moving to … and what are the alternatives?

Here are some thoughts on where to start if we’re trying to break the AVE habit:

Link measures to business objectives. A wise PR practitioner, whether agency or company-side, will also make sure when designing measurements that the communications objectives are tied to the organization’s objectives. We can often gain management support for new ways of measuring — and for moving away from AVEs — if we can reassure management that the purpose of the measurement process is to help achieve company goals.

Start at the beginning. Outputs. Outtakes. Outcomes. These are the three levels of communications measurements we traditionally examine. I have the privilege of working with Brad Rawlins, Ph.D., chair of the communications department at Brigham Young University and a global expert on public relations measurement. I invited Dr. Rawlins’ input on this subject, and he observed that, while we are always striving to measure outcomes — how our communications efforts influence attitudes and actions — we usually have to start with measuring outputs — the messages available to our audiences. There are much more effective ways of measuring messages than AVEs. We need to measure the reach of the message, as well as its tone, accuracy, and prominence. Then we can correlate our output to the business objectives of our strategies with much more confidence and precision.

Rawlins notes: “Communications doesn’t take place in a vacuum. You can’t just look at placement; you need to examine share-of-voice and share-of-influence. If you competitors are mentioned, you need to examine what’s being said about your organization in contrast to what’s being said about theirs.”

Take a simple first step. Rawlins suggests starting with news clips or some other body of outputs that can be easily aggregated. Conduct a basic analysis to determine the messages they contain, the tone of voice they use in talking about the organization and the position the organization occupied in the article versus competitors. Starting from there, assess the gaps and come up with some simple strategies for addressing them. For example, noting consistently inaccurate information about the organization in local news clips presents an opportunity to do further outreach with those media organizations and set the record straight. Then, measure whether the organization’s presence in the same media changes over time, due to these efforts.

All this takes more work than simply calculating advertising equivalences — but it’s worth it. The limitation of AVEs is that they can never make the business case for public relations efforts. AVEs can only pit public relations against advertising in a “coulda, shoulda, woulda” competition for the same pool of client or company resources.

And so, this is an auspicious time to continue the dialogue — with each other, with management and with clients. Says Rawlins, “The bold shift away from AVEs will require educating clients about better methods of measuring and a commitment to finding real value of public relations efforts.”

Editor’s note: PRSA and the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) have entered into a strategic partnership intended to help accelerate the development of standardized approaches to public relations program measurement.

Susan Walton, APR, serves on the PRSA Board of Directors and is the associate chair of the department of communications at Brigham Young University.

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