Evaluation: New direction for AMEC

The Association of Media Evaluation Companies is to launch a PRE institute. Helen Gregory asks if it can truly add value.

Does the PR industry need another trade association? With two already well established - the Institute of Public Relations (IPR) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) - would another really bring any clear benefits?

The Association of Media Evaluation Companies' (AMEC) proposes to launch the Institute of Communication Planning, Research and Evaluation this autumn. By giving individuals involved in evaluation proper accreditation, it aims to help PR departments make a case for getting more budget, as well as position the industry more strategically with clients and help in-house PROs gain a more senior role in an organisation. It also aims to give those working in evaluation more credibility with their boss and with clients, and also aims to work with universities to beef up training to ensure evaluation is a bigger part of PR courses.

Evaluation agencies report there's still a reticence among PR agencies to really dedicate resources, which is one of the reasons behind the new institute, but where clients may once have been satisfied by a cuttings book in the reception area, they are now increasingly keen to show the real impact of PR.

Clients now want more evidence of PR's worth and the industry is increasingly being pushed towards delivering a service based upon return on investment.

Gauging results

'Evaluation is the single biggest issue we face and we're increasingly being required to evaluate our work - and provide and budget for more meaningful and scientific evaluation,' says icas PR managing director Carl Courtney.

Unilever brand PR manager Helen Park, too, says the firm is not just looking at evaluation through media coverage, but the outcome with the consumer. 'Evaluation is a given these days - we're onto the next stage.

Unless you can measure how your work has affected the consumer you can't really gauge the result.'

However, while any PRO will tell you they think evaluation is a good idea, time and budget constraints still seem to prevent a really thorough evaluation process at many small to medium-sized agencies and in-house PR departments. Says one industry source: 'PR agencies view evaluation as a threat - they want to maximise their turnover so they might do evaluation in-house, and although they'll pay out for clippings, their budget won't stretch to much else.'

Somerfield PR manager Pete Williams admits that evaluation is expensive and reckons that once you start, you have to keep doing it. 'We just haven't got the budget, but if we could devote a member of staff to pulling together cuttings boards every time we did a project, it would be more valuable.'

However, the IPR doesn't think a new association is needed, and believes the industry's trade association is already on track with evaluation.

Chairman Anne Gregory suggests that its efforts could even be diluted as a result, and had previously asked AMEC chair Mark Westaby to set up his group as an IPR special-interest faction. 'We could have been a lot stronger together rather than separately,' she says. 'We've got a lot of influence in the industry and it would have been helpful if it became a special-interest body in the group - that way it would have kept the issue high on the agenda.'

Not surprisingly, the specialist evaluation firms believe the institute is a good idea - after all, it's in their interest to raise the profile of the process.

Evaluation needs more promotion and understanding, explains Delahaye business development manager Steve Virgin: 'A new institute is a good thing - we need a platform to explain what evaluation can do and how it can be utilised. There are other evaluation bodies but in name only.' Although evaluation firm Millward Brown Precis MD Fergus Hampton would encourage staff to join the institute, he has reservations: 'There are obvious reasons why it should sit in AMEC but it's disappointing that we can't get a better level of collaboration with the IPR as it's an obvious relationship.' But he adds: 'The IPR is more generalist and doesn't have such a focus on this research. This goes beyond PR.'

Looking beyond PR

In terms of evaluation, it aims to take PR and position it squarely alongside other industries, which makes sense because many agencies now offer a wider service - including marketing, advertising and direct marketing - and means PR's worth can't always be judged in isolation.

'The issues of planning, research and evaluation aren't just faced by the PR industry, but in advertising, too. The new institute will recognise that there are planning, research and evaluation professionals operating in the comms industry generally, such as sales promotion, DM and advertising,' says Westaby.

He believes the IPR doesn't offer the type of expertise necessary to do evaluation properly, and says there needs to be something related to people looking for this expertise - AMEC's institute will represent individuals rather than firms and wants a broad spread of members, from bosses to students.

Edward Bird, director of value-added services at evaluation company Romeike, supports the idea of valuing staff and helping them develop a career path.

'We have a body of people who need training and career development - this is a way of doing it. The institute will give evaluation the focus it needs and will add credibility. Although the IPR offers some of the things we're interested in, this is about completing the circle.'

Octopus Communications director Jon Lonsdale doesn't believe many clients are prepared to pay for evaluation and reckons the only way the institute will succeed is if clients get involved. 'PR should be more accountable but not just by saying "I'm a member of an institute". Maybe by forgoing part of your fee as a guarantee - payable as an element based around activities and service levels - would be more powerful.'

But it still boils down to cash and motivation as agencies will have to sit down and do the proper evaluation before they think about forking out for subscription fees. And although clients might talk about evaluation, agencies may need to decide whether they can either absorb any extra costs or put up their rates.

Although AMEC will help pay start-up fees, member subscription will be the main source of funding - claiming to be 'significantly less' than the IPR's fees. It aims to launch formally in November, and if it does get off the ground, the IPR has promised to work closely with the new institute. Whether it brings the kudos evaluation needs will remain to be seen.

FOR

MCC International works primarily in the IT sector and does self-conducted audits every six months for clients, going into a full audit of its work, measuring results against targets and the competition.

Account director Paul Wooding says: 'It's much more meaningful than offering clients a clippings book - they want something usable, such as an increase in brand awareness or sales.'

Wooding's agency isn't a member of any organisation but plans to join the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) as a way to raise its profile. He says: 'We want to give the agency more credibility so that clients recognise that we're bound by codes of conduct and standards.' And he believes that if enough people buy into the new institute it can only be a benefit. 'If a client can see you're accredited they might think you can deliver on your promises - we'd definitely look at it,' he adds.

AGAINST

'I was surprised to hear about the new institute because the IPR and PRCA have been doing a lot of work on evaluation in recent years,' says Brahm PR joint managing partner Malcolm Cowing.

He acknowledges that evaluation is increasingly at the forefront of clients' minds these days and says the subject has been neglected generally by the PR industry compared with advertising and direct marketing. But Cowing isn't convinced that a new institute is the way to raise its profile.

'I would have thought there's enough activity and emphasis going on already that would negate the need for another body - the structure that the IPR has set up works pretty well.'

However, he adds that as a multi-specialist agency (which includes advertising and direct marketing), he believes that finding a way to work across the disciplines makes sense: 'I think the evaluation bodies should try to find some common ground.'

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