Having largely succeeded in weaning itself off Advertising Value Equivalents, the PR industry is once more using a measurement system that almost everyone agrees is crude and misleading.
Until the late 1990s AVEs were commonplace. Campaign evaluations would be based on boasts about how many hundreds of thousands of pounds the same coverage would have cost if bought on the rate card.
In the good years before the current slump, such was the confidence in the industry that they ceased to be so important, but, as was underlined at last week's PR Week Awards, they are now once more a headline measure.
In recent years awards judges had discarded entries that relied on AVEs as evidence of a campaign's success, but this year, so common was the practice that the metric was deemed respectable once again.
The cross industry 'PRE-fix' research and evaluation committee - established to try to improve research and evaluation standards - also reports increasing use of AVEs. Work earlier this year for the committee found that nearly 50 per cent of practitioners were using AVEs, a figure that compares with that of 28 per cent found by the media evaluation agency Metrica in 1998.
There is no suggestion AVEs have become any more valid. There are still the problems of measuring non-commercial media - space cannot be bought on the BBC - the little account taken of the quality of coverage - hostile coverage counts as much as glowing reviews - and the more fundamental failing that they do not speak at all of the extent to which a campaign is actually effective in changing the target audience's behaviour.
What seems to have changed is the amount of pressure on PR practitioners to demonstrate their worth. Chris Genasi, Weber Shandwick global director of strategy and PRE-fix committee chair, says: 'Deep down all PR people know AVEs are complete rubbish. A lot of clients think they are rubbish too, but companies are facing a greater demand to demonstrate a financial value. It is a question of a safe harbour in a storm.'
While the inadequacies of AVEs remain, there is suggestion that the context in which they are now being used - for example, to compare one PR campaign with another, rather than to fix a false value equation between PR and advertising - may be more acceptable.
Claire Spencer, MD of measurement company i to i tracker and a PRE-fix consultant, says: 'The use of AVEs has grown as people are using them to benchmark one campaign against another.'
In-house PROs, many of whom are reluctant to admit using AVEs for their own campaigns, accept that such comparisons have validity, but say that AVEs still do not measure what is most important.
Pfizer corporate PR officer Joel Morris says: 'AVEs can help compare a campaign's impact year-on-year, but having key messages communicated in priority media is usually our main objective. AVEs don't measure this accurately and are an inflexible tool.'
Other clients agree. COI Communications head of sponsorship and PR Oliver Hickson says: 'I think AVEs have little value. For us it is really important to see whether our objectives are being achieved in terms of things like the actual audience reached.'
A spokesperson for the BBC compared them to the practice of gauging campaign success by weighing piles of press cuttings. But despite the lack of enthusiasm for AVEs, clients still seem prepared to accept them, if only as part of a broader picture.
While this situation remains, IPR head of policy Nigel O'Connor believes there is little chance of them disappearing: 'They are still being used as they are easy to understand and simple. Only when clients demand an alternative will they go away.'
Part of the remit of the PRE-fix committee is to find just such an alternative.
Genasi says: 'Our vision is that in five years we will have come up with a new measure and every one will have forgotten about AVEs.'
But there is disagreement as to how successful PRE-fix is likely to be. O'Connor believes the chance of a workable alternative to advertising comparison-based evaluation techniques being agreed is 'slim'. Some are even more scathing. Metrica joint MD Mark Westaby says: 'The idea of an evaluation standard is nonsense. For everyone to be able to use it it has to be simple, but PR measurement is much more complex.'
Westaby urges a greater emphasis on research and evaluation as part of PR training. Firms such as Metrica and i to i tracker are selling sophisticated research and evaluation solutions and are aware that they can be accused of deliberately complicating the debate in order to support their livelihoods.
They strongly deny the charge and counter that the issue is crucial in determining the future role of the PR industry. Westaby says: 'The problem is that PR is driven by people who don't understand the importance of measurement. If the industry does not get to grips with this issue, it will get what it deserves and become a commodity discipline just putting out press releases.'
If this analysis proves correct, the damage caused by the current slump will go far beyond job losses, budget cuts and agency closures.