Analysis: Are IPR and AMEC losing sight of goal?

AMEC's plans to create its own PRE institute have upset the IPR. But, amid discussions between the two bodies, Joe Lepper asks whether their different views on how to best serve the industry are the only reasons for the dispute

During the summer, relations between the Association of Media Evaluation Companies (AMEC) and the Institute of Public Relations (IPR) looked on the surface as if they couldn't be better. The IPR had produced its third toolkit on planning, research and evaluation (PRE), with praise and official endorsement from AMEC.

However, when AMEC declared last week that current PRE efforts, including the IPR's, were not up to scratch and that it planned to set up its own PRE institute, it became apparent that the relationship was far from perfect.

The fires were stoked further - with AMEC chairman Mark Westaby suggesting it was 'crazy' to think the IPR could meet 'the demands of professionals in this field', given the technical sophistication of the sector nowadays.

The IPR reacted equally vociferously. The institute said AMEC's plans would not help PRE professionals, PROs and clients, but would instead cause confusion and ghettoisation of the subject.

A week later and both sides are attempting to strike a conciliatory tone. Westaby insists the plans are at 'a very early stage' and all AMEC is doing is investigating whether its plan is feasible. He says this is set to take between six and 12 months.

However, Westaby does admit 'my feeling is that it will show the need for something else'. He adds: 'We want to involve the IPR in this, to look at whether the needs of PRE professionals are currently being best served.'

Chris Genasi, chairman of the IPR's PRE taskforce, is similarly amicable.

He says: 'I don't think it's a terminal breakdown. Everyone from time to time doesn't see eye to eye. But it's important we meet to discuss this.'

There is indeed evidence that the war of words is nothing more than a scuffle. AMEC gave the IPR a draft press release detailing its plans two weeks before the official announcement, and in plenty of time for the IPR's evaluation taskforce to consider its stance. And the two sides are meeting next week to discuss the issue.

However, the fact remains that on the central issue of setting up an AMEC-run institute dedicated to PRE, the two players are in fundamental disagreement.

Genasi says it was perhaps inevitable that this disagreement has occurred, conceding that some AMEC members were bound to feel their interests could not be best met by the IPR.

The signs were certainly there - this time last year, Westaby told PRWeek that 'the problem is that PR is driven by people who don't understand the importance of measurement' (PRWeek, 8 November 2002).

A year on and his view has not changed. Westaby still believes that PR professionals 'don't have the expertise in the sophisticated planning and research (field)'.

But his criticisms are not just levelled at the IPR. He also questions the training of PR professionals at universities. As part of its feasibility study, AMEC is researching the standard of PRE teaching in PR degree courses, which Westaby expects to show are in need of improvement.

Genasi says: 'I think it's fair to say it was likely he (Westaby) would want to go his own way. But I disagree that PR professionals don't understand the issue.'

For Genasi this is the central thrust of the argument: the central premise that PROs and the IPR don't understand the complexity of PRE is wrong and another body is unnecessary.

Ultimately, Genasi claims, it is the clients who will miss out, suggesting that there could be a resurgence in the use of Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE), which was discarded by much of the PR industry after the late 1990s.

Genasi says: 'If you are not sure, you turn to what you know. We are already seeing an increase in the use of AVE.'

He also sees AMEC's move as ghettoising PRE, making the issue out of touch with the rest of industry and 'descending into the world of geekdom'.

Lionel Zetter, chairman of the IPR's specialist government affairs group, is a supporter of sector-level specialist groups, but agrees with Genasi's objection to a separate group for PRE. Zetter says PRE is an issue for all practitioners, and a separate group covering it serves no purpose for the industry. He argues: 'This issue is best served internally within the IPR.'

Another IPR figure, director Claire Spencer - who is also MD of measurement company i to i tracker - says any argument between the IPR and AMEC is 'unhelpful' to the communications industry, because it deflects attention from the common goal of all communicators to 'make the case for the contribution of PR to business'.

She adds that the industry would be best served with PRE being overseen by the IPR, with assistance from AMEC, which she says just covers media evaluation rather than other measurement disciplines.

But perhaps it is not just for the sake of the industry that the IPR is keen to conciliate. With its toolkit and training schemes, the organisation's bank balance could be hit hard if AMEC launched its own rival products.

And what about the prospect of further IPR toolkits not having endorsement from AMEC? Westaby says this is not likely, but if the two sides still fail to agree after the feasibility study, how long will it be before this disagreement does become a terminal breakdown?

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