As a PR consultant I had a love/hate relationship with AVE. Everyone knows it is a lazy, notional measure of effectiveness and it is uncomfortable using something about as robust as a chocolate teapot, but many clients like what they know and they understand AVEs. And frankly they make you look good (yes, Mr Client I can confirm that I've leveraged your £15,000 PR budget into the equivalent of a £3m media spend).
As an in-house communications director I longed to be able to demonstrate the contribution comms made to the bottom line without having to spend aeons doing so. But one size does not fit all. Each activity had to be mapped in terms of objective and outcome, each picked apart from other influencers of behavioural change.
Lack of alternatives
There is no magic bullet that will replace AVE at a stroke, which is partly why it persists long after being discredited.
Measuring the effectiveness of comms activities remains a painstaking process, as evidenced by many of the presentations at the fifth AMEC summit, which took place two weeks ago in Madrid.
A great deal of good work has gone into creating principles, setting standards and proselytising the importance of measurement in PR and comms, such as the Barcelona Principles, the seven key principles agreed at AMEC's summit in Barcelona in 2010 (see box, above right).
But the jargon enrobing the work in pseudo-science does it no favours.
On-boarding the C-suite, the operationalisation of the principles and weaponising the model are examples of the baffling idiom creating barriers to engagement with an essentially willing audience of PR professionals and clients.
For the record, on-boarding the C-suite means getting senior management to buy into the idea; operationalisation is a polysyllabic take on 'put the principles into action' and the last one beats me.
As AkzoNobel corporate director of comms John McLaren so eloquently puts it: 'Piffle. When you say the C-suite you mean the sociopaths upstairs.'
McLaren is part refusnik, part convert. He states that comms people are desperate to be seen as scientists when they are artists, and that you cannot underplay the importance of instinct in the job: 'Hands up anyone who used market research when you met your partner,' he says. 'Thought not. We're human.'
McLaren posits that some of the best PR decisions could not possibly have come from the use of measurement metrics - they came from the gut. However, he acknowledges research has given him valuable ammunition in targeting his company's message. For instance it showed that 59 per cent of people were more likely to buy Akzo products if they knew they were made by the firm.
There is broad acceptance of the need for robust, detailed measurement across the comms industry, although the terminally insecure will always be with us and they do not want it because they are concerned about what it might reveal.
One of the problems with measuring stuff is that there is so much stuff to measure. It is possible to track so many kinds of customer interaction on so many levels that it is easy to drown in data.
Keep it simple
Speaker after speaker stressed the need for simplicity in developing measurement standards, while showing information dashboards that made your skull throb.
Making sense of the information streams available must start with working out what you are trying to achieve and why you seek to achieve it, then finding a meaningful way to track it.
It highlights the need to set criteria for success and then the measurement system for tracking it on a case by case basis. That could lead to a lack of comparability between activities within the same discipline, within the same firm.
Clients and agencies have developed their own measurement systems and there are a migraine-inducing number to choose from in social media evaluation alone.
The geek shall inherit the earth, but did we expect them to inform the future of PR? Significant players, such as Ketchum CEO Rob Flaherty, believe that increasingly the PR business will be staffed by people tracking their activities across multiple platforms and channels in real time from their desktops. The danger is that we become hamstrung by numbers to the detriment of creativity.
Many believe comms cannot thrive without robust measurement. The balance between the data working for the business and the business working for the data is crucial.
Booz Allen Hamilton vice-president Chris Foster advocates comms people thinking, sounding and acting like business people. There is, he says, a disconnect between what senior management wants and what it needs. 'They want the soft intuition stuff, but they need quantitative measurement as well,' he observes. The way to bridge that gap is for comms people to embrace key performance indicators for business, which broadly fall into revenue, profit, investment and volume indicators; financial market measures; non-financial internal measures and competitive market metrics.
'You have to think strategically and link comms efforts to business objectives. The problems you are presented with are rarely the ones that need addressing. You have to ask difficult questions: not just what do you want to achieve but why?' says Foster.
'What is the business objective? What stakeholder audience do we need to influence? What barriers exist? What comms activities best reach the audience and support the business objective? Comms needs to be highly surgical in its approach.'
Flaherty, meanwhile, has promised to spearhead a pan-industry charge to get AMEC standards adopted by the top 50 clients and 20 agencies worldwide, starting with signing up Weber Shandwick, FleishmanHillard, Burson-Marsteller and Edelman in the next six months.
AMEC launched a strategic partnership with ICCO and an online guide to best practice in PR evaluation in partnership with ICCO and the PRCA.
Neither of these moves offers itself as a panacea.
Flaherty acknowledges that adoption of the AMEC standards will leave room for agencies to put their own spin on the shared standards and that the guide is a move away from a definitive solution, instead offering common principles and case studies for guidance.
These moves demonstrate that things are moving in the right direction, but there is not and probably never will be a simple answer to measurement in PR.
THE BARCELONA PRINCIPLES
1. Importance of goal setting and measurement
2. Measuring the effect on outcomes is preferred to measuring outputs
3. The effect on business results can and should be measured where possible
4. Media measurement requires quantity and quality
5. AVEs are not the value of public relations
6. Social media can and should be measured
7. Transparency and replicability are paramount
Priorities for AMEC for the coming year as voted on by delegates at the fifth summit
1. Develop a global education programme
2. Provide guidelines that convey measurement concepts
3. The effect on business results can and should be measured where possible
4. Adopt recommendations by the Coalition for Public Relations Research Standards
AMEC chairman David Rockland sums up the promises made at this year's summit
- Accept the need for urgency and act on it
- Address PR people's need for simplicity vs the complexity that exists in measurement systems
- Improve education
- Put the Barcelona Principles into action
- Address the need to turn principles into standards
- Form a technical standards committee to validate and recommend standards for adoption by AMEC members
- Increase co-operation and collaboration between Federation Internationale des Bureaux d'Extraits de Presse and AMEC
- Create an NGO chapter within AMEC
- AMEC, ICCO and the PRCA unveiled The PR Professional's Definitive Guide to Measurement, designed to be the definitive guide to public relations evaluation, after four months of development.
- AMEC announced a strategic partnership with ICCO and the PRCA to collaborate on education initiatives and other events with ICCO members, in order to promote the benefits of measurement in PR practice. The ICCO membership comprises national trade associations in 28 countries, and the PRCA represents the UK public relations industry.
- Ketchum CEO Rob Flaherty promised to sign up the top five global PR agencies to spearhead an initiative to gain a formal commitment from the top 50 clients and the top 20 agencies to adopt AMEC measurement standards.
- AMEC launched a global education initiative to spread the word about the importance of measurement and train more PR practitioners in measurement standards.