So, Where Did AVEs Come From Anyway?

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.

David Geddes

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.

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7 Comments

  1. Pingback: Towards ‘Impact’ – promoting research online | BU Research

  2. Let me try to meld a common path. Measurement and evaluation should be based on a business and communications objectives, and an alignment of appropriate metrics against those objectives. If AVE can pass through hard scrutiny as a metric aligned with business and communications objectives, perhaps it could be used. I am concerned that AVE is most often bolted on at the end of a program because the people involved in planning and measurement are (i) not sufficiently trained in how to measure appropriately, (ii) too lazy, if I have to be blunt, to go through the effort of developing rigorous metrics, and (iii) unwilling to allocate the time and money to a valid measurement program.

  3. Mike: Thanks for the diagram. I can appreciate the separated elements but disagree with you analysis of the original situation of public relations. If you read books and papers before 1950 and the views of PR leaders like Arthur Page, they express public relations as a whole-of-organisation approach to relations with various publics including employees. Publicity was used as a delivery tool and included events and media relations. After the 1950s, publicity took over as the model for public relations with the emphasis on tactic activity. AVEs then took off.

  4. Great article – Thanks. Often you find that marketing departments that you do PR for agree, AVE is not a great measure and as a PR agency they are happy for you to measure against other criterea.

    However, AVE is indeed a persistant weed, simply because when the same marketing team want to talk about results at a higher level they need something with £ signs to show the board. For this reason AVE may continue to persist until we experiment with an equivalent £ value for other measured values.

    We have found the best way to approach measurement is the same way we apprach a PR plan – it is unique to each client and covers a range of measures.
    http://www.catherinelane.com

  5. Tom – Thanks for further insights! I think we are in agreement that there are two PR groups/camps but that we might have them differently defined. Actually, after reading your definitions I think are not too far off, but that the difference leads to further insight. If we were together in the same room now, I would go to the nearest white board and sketch what I think you are saying and when we have that right, I would add what I am thinking. Then we could try to join the thinking to produce a better integrated concept, hopefully.
    Since we are not in the same room, I’ll try to post my sketch here using Prezi and see if we can use that to combine our thinking and then communicate it to interested others.
    Here goes …
    http://prezi.com/8rymdy9occsc/present/?
    Did it work?
    Mike

  6. Michael: Good knockabout stuff!

    My research leads me to a similar idea that “PR” has split into two camps, but they are different to yours. Around 60 years ago, there was a separation as the post-war consumer economy took off. The previous view was that PR was a whole-of-organisation view (see Arthur W. Page and others).

    Around the 1950s, it took two paths – one we call corporate or organisational communications which has uses research and strategic approaches. The other was “PR/publicity” which is very tactical and battling with advertising for share of budget. It took up AVE as its (dubious) metric and has used it increasingly in succeeding decades.

    Since then public relations has developed on two directions which are now very evident. There’s no doubt that AVE is a junk metric. It’s really a cost comparison of space and tells us nothing about effectiveness, outcome or value creation for the organisation or client.

    In my article, I quoted from a founder of the UK’s PR professional body who said in 1949 that: “This practice [using AVE] has done more to undermine public relations than any other.” He was right then and he is right now. AVE does not give credibility to the practice of public relations or its practioners.

    Thanks for your contribution to the debate.

  7. Tom –
    The Three PRs Model?
    As I understand it, AVE has been outlawed by one group but another group freely practices it. So the practice group members are outlaws or maybe scofflaws in the eyes of the other group. Apparently, the practice group doesn’t care and is not influenced by the lawmakers. Why?
    .
    Perhaps it’s time we recognize that there are two groups practicing PR with two different sets of beliefs and practices. Maybe even three.

    First: those practitioners who define what and why PR exists and is practiced that it makes total sense to measure it with AVE. They work for clients who want them to get in the press yet when it happens, don’t see an effect on sales, so need some other measure. AVE might suffice.
    Second: those who believe PR exists and should be practiced in a different way that they believe is better and are experimenting with what that way should be. Along the way, they start to toss out some of the old ways and encourage all to do so.
    Third: those who have stopped experimenting and actually adopt and use some new way. They are happy to have found something that works better and, other than the odd keynote speech, don’t feel the need to tell others what to do.

    If this is the case, then AVE will never be eliminated until the forces that keep it alive are changed. Is it better to concentrate on stamping out something someone else believes in or should the efforts go into making the alternative path an obviously better choice?

    What are the factors which keep AVE useful?

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