In a Five Minutes With … discussion a year ago, Professor Tom Watson of Bournemouth University in England mentioned that he was researching the history of public relations measurement and evaluation, with a particular interest in the source of AVE – Added Value Equivalence – which he called a “persistent weed”.
Next month, Tom will be presenting a paper on his AVE research at the International Public Relations Research Conference at the University of Miami (March 8-10).
In this Conversations contribution, Tom investigates where AVE came from, and finds some surprising answers.
It is quite astounding that AVE has persisted for so long, as it has had no support from academic research. Indeed, there have been many harsh criticisms, such as “voodoo measurements” and “plain silly.”
The first reference that I found about an AVE-type measurement comes in a 1947 book, Blueprint for Public Relations, by Plackard and Blackmon. They described a method of measuring the value of column inches that was offered by a press clippings agency. Each column inch was multiplied by $1.06, which was the agency’s calculation of average column inch value for US daily newspapers.
“From the results of his publicity thus obtained in the form of newspaper cuttings, he [the publicist] can much more effectively measure its value,” wrote Plackard and Blackmon
In 1949 F. Murray Milne, a founder of the Institute of Public Relations in England, wrote in the IPR Journal that “it was a grave mistake for the PRO to try and evaluate his work at so many column inches calculated at advertising rates,” and that “press cuttings are never measured in column inches and assessed at advertising rates. This practice has done more to undermine public relations than any other.”
These references show that measurement of press coverage by reference to advertising rates was already established over 60 years ago. I am proposing that AVE arose from two influences. First, press clipping bureaux were able to use their sources of ratecard information to offer a valuation service to clients. In other words, they were able to offer a value-added service at little or no cost to themselves. Second, and probably more important, from the beginning of the 20th century there was comparison between advertising, in which space was bought to put the message before audiences, and the work of press agents and publicity men, which was less certain in its results.
Richard Tedlow writes that in the 1920s, “one estimate has it that … the press agent could deliver equal linage to an advertisement at one-third the cost of paid space”. This observation indicates there was an understanding or expectation that publicity activity could be expressed in advertising value terms.
But AVE has been ignored or had a bad press since they first appeared. Scott Cutlip’s major bibliography of public relations research from 1939 to the mid-1960s makes no mention of it. In the UK, the prolific PR author Frank Jefkins damned it in 1969: “Nor is there any sense in trying to assess an advertisement rate-card value on editorial coverage, saying these inches would have cost so much if the space had been paid for, for the elementary reason that no-one would use the same space, the same quantity of space, or perhaps even the same media for advertising purposes.” There were many others who were equally critical.
Yet AVE thrived, as former Institute for Public Relations CEO John W. Felton recalled: “Way back in 1966, when I was in the product publicity unit of US Steel in Pittsburgh, PA, our boss Tex Wurzbach, counted product clips we generated and equated the space we “earned free” to the amount that the same space would have cost if we had purchased it as ads.”
AVE has seldom appeared in public relations texts and not at all in the measurement and evaluation research that burgeoned from the late 1970s.
Now that the Barcelona Principles have “outlawed” AVE, will it survive? When I recently judged regional public relations awards in the UK, I saw a distressing situation: the majority of submissions had some form of AVE calculation in objectives and evaluation. I fear that AVEs are so established in the mythology of publicity activity that they will be with us for a long time to come.
# Tom thanks many members of the Commission on Public Relations Measurement and Evaluation for their assistance with his research.