The COI wants to ensure that the Government justifies the expense of behaviour-change campaigns, as the recession bites into the public purse and a general election looms.
It is consulting the PRCA, CIPR, the Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication, the wider PR industry and government departments to establish a set of core standards for PR evaluation.
The announcement comes after the COI tested five evaluation agencies by issuing an identical brief to evaluate 138 pieces of positive coverage.
Their responses ranged widely. Estimates of how many people saw the coverage ranged between 46 and 93 million, while the percentage of positive coverage generated ranged from 17 to 100 per cent.
COI director of news and PR Neil Martinson said of the agencies' differing results: 'It suggests their methods are not quite right.'
Once the standards are established, evaluation agencies that do not comply will be dropped from the COI's roster.
In a letter to the affected agencies, Martinson wrote: 'It is apparent that a number of methodologies are used in the PR evaluation industry, which, although often valid within its own parameters, do not provide a robust standard that provides comparative evaluation in basic measures, nor across disciplines.'
The five agencies on the COI's framework are Echo Research, Metrica, Millward Brown Precis, Panarc International and TNS Presswatch.
3 Monkeys head of consultancy Ali Gee said any evaluation must include behavioural change: 'There has to be an acceptance that real and long-term analysis of actual behavioural change is needed. There is a world of difference between that and a survey that says eight out of ten people intend to change.'
Kindred MD Laura Oliphant welcomed the call: 'If this overhaul helps clients make decisions on whether a campaign has been successful or not, I think it is a good thing.'
Meanwhile, the COI is driving forward a programme to assess whether government websites offer the taxpayer value for money. ABCe has been appointed by the COI to validate the figures generated by an audit of government websites.
HOW I SEE IT - Alison Gee, Head of consultancy, 3 Monkeys
It's no surprise Neil and his team are tightening up on evaluation with the election just around the corner. No doubt the COI team is making sure that, when the questions are asked, they can produce the answers: where did the money go, what difference did it make, were there better ways to deliver this?
Proper benchmarking, audience research and comms channel planning are all key to improving evaluation. Sadly, significant budgets are still put behind campaigns with insufficient insight into whose behaviour needs changing, the barriers to change and what will inspire action.