How to achieve insightful PR reporting without using the dreaded AVE

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  • AVE
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There’s a famous quote by businessman John Wanamaker that says: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” These days, that’s less true, given that digital channels can deliver trackable, tangible results.  But when it comes to PR reporting, many companies are still plagued by Wanamaker’s maxim.

I’ve worked in PR agencies for more than 20 years, and measurement was one of the first things I was taught. Unfortunately, the method of measurement I learnt was one that’s been discredited, yet is still preferred by many businesses, because they haven’t found anything to replace it.

To wit: Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) – or, sometimes, Advertising Equivalent Value (AEV).  Given that nobody agrees what to call it, you’d think we’d be more sceptical about using it. [For convenience, I’m calling it AVE.]

AVE is based on the premise that you can quantify the value of PR coverage by comparing it to advertising. The idea is that if it costs £1,000 for a full-page advert in a magazine, and you can get a PR story in the same publication without paying for it, then the value of your coverage is equivalent to the advertising spend you’ve saved, i.e. £1,000.

If your ‘cutting’ is only 1/3 of a page, then the value drops to £333.33.  If the story appears across a couple of pages, then you double it to £2,000. Sometimes, in the early days of my career, I’d have to use a ruler to work out the exact percentage of a page that the PR story occupied. That’s taking ‘measurement’ literally.


The wrong value

You can see the problems with this approach, especially in an age where printed publications are increasingly scarce. You can’t accurately assess the value of digital coverage by comparing it to banner advertising.

But the challenge with AVE is that its approach has always lacked real meaning. It prioritised size over substance, quantity over quality. Should your company be hit by a scandal, you’d have enormous press coverage. Based on AVE, its value would be sky-high, but in real life its impact would be hugely damaging.

For these reasons, the PR industry got together to find a better way. Famously, practitioners from across the world met at Barcelona in 2010 to decide what good PR reporting looked like. They published a set of seven guidelines, a sort of Ten Commandments for PR people, called the Barcelona Principles.

These have since been updated (in 2015 and 2020) but remain fundamentally the same.

In the latest version of the Barcelona Principles, this is enshrined as follows:

AVEs are not the value of communication.

OK, great. So, what do we use instead?

Well, actually, there you might have a problem…


The problem with Barcelona

The Barcelona Principles are exactly that: principles. And they make perfect sense in theoretical terms. What they don’t offer is any useful practical advice on how to implement the principles. To businesses who want to understand the return on investment achieved by using PR, all that talk in Barcelona hasn’t been very helpful.

How do businesses define value? Generally, they think in terms of numbers – and the most eloquent numbers in business have certain symbols in front of them. ££££. $$$$. €€€€.

That’s why many agencies continue to use AVE, because from that purely mathematical/commercial standpoint, it still makes sense. The company pays an agency (for example) £2,000 per month in retained fees. They write a story, send it out and generate the equivalent of (let’s say) £6,000 in advertising. That’s a return on investment of 3:1 and the head of marketing can now have a jolly good time reporting that to the board.


Redefining value

To get PR reporting right, it’s essential to break this link between value and cost. AVE was invented in a bygone age where print was king and advertising its calvary. Today, audiences will get their information from Google, YouTube, TikTok, LinkedIn, podcasts, dodgy Facebook posts, carrier pigeons and – occasionally, if there’s one lying around – a newspaper.

New channels and technologies are emerging all the time, and marketing and communications are in a state of near-constant disruption. [Case in point: while writing this, I read an article about how music videos – one of the defining artforms of my lifetime – are in decline because nobody has the patience to watch anything for three minutes.]

We simply can’t rely on AVE – but what can replace it?

I’ve thought long and hard about this over many years, at different agencies – all of whom desired to stop using AVE but couldn’t offer anything as acceptable to clients.

Over time, though, I’ve developed a methodology that has become the standard as Nielsen McAllister. The trick is to realise that value can’t be pigeon-holed. It is not one thing; the simplicity of AVE is as fantastical as the silver bullets of werewolf literature.

Instead, value can be found in lots of different places: in the reputation of the publication; the size of its audience; the sentiment of the story; the backlinks to the company’s own website.

And with readily available technology, all of this can be tracked and presented in a handy dashboard. At Nielsen McAllister, we use Google Sheets to store the underlying data, and Looker Studio for our PR reporting dashboard.

Our reports give our clients a comprehensive and holistic understanding of what their PR budget is delivering. It encompasses the number of cuttings, the geographical spread of where they’re being seen, the audience reach, the number of backlinks and the average domain authority of the referring sites.

At a glance, we can track performance by date, by publication or by story – which means we can then focus our efforts into analysis rather than measurement. What type of content performs well? (or, equally important, what should we be doing less of?) Which publications are our friends? (and which do we need to build better relationships with because the coverage isn’t what we want?)

The Holy Grail?

I’m not claiming that we’ve solved everything that’s been wrong with PR reporting – but I do know that it works for us.

For example, I’ve blithely ignored one of the key tenets of the Barcelona Principles, which asks that one of the parameters for measurement should be ‘impact.’  That’s really important for campaign-based PR where, for example, you might want to quantify brand awareness, or a change in behaviour. It’s dependent on having a benchmark from which to measure the impact – usually by running a survey before and after the campaign has run.

That’s not what we specialise in at Nielsen McAllister. We offer a long-term, retained feed of information for our clients, ensuring they have a consistent presence in publications and media that are read and seen by their target audiences.

We’re finding that, as we’ve introduced our client base to our reporting dashboard, they understand the value. They can now see a set of different ways of measuring success, all of which can be tweaked and improved over time.

Have we eradicated AVE entirely? No – some clients still like it, even if only as a historic benchmark while we migrate to new ways of measurement. But crucially, even those clients appreciate the value of the other metrics as well.

So even as the good folk of Barcelona continue to seek the Holy Grail, we’ve found a system of PR reporting that works for us – and one that helps clients appreciate the value of the content we deliver.


Want to know more? If you’d like to see our PR reporting system in action, or want to discuss how we can help you solve your communication challenges, please contact us now.

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