Friday, May 15, 2009

The Ethics of AVE’s

There are elements of the publicity industries that use Advertising Value Equivalents described by the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication as the "Equivalent cost of buying space devoted to editorial content".

As I wrote in "Evaluating Press Coverage" in 1995.

"The relationships between reader and publication and between editor and reader is symbiotic, and invited with permission by advertisers - advertising value equivalent (AVE) and editorial are not the same and you can't use the same tools to measure effectiveness. There is no advertising equivalent to editorial nor is there a measure of advertising avoided because of editorial coverage. There is no common measure for advertising and editorial. Measurable factors include whether it is timely compelling, relevant, useful authoritative."

Today I would add 'in context'. These arguments would have a lot more traction these days.

This year I was criticised for my work on online advertising opportunity by Katie Paine who obviously had not read my views on the relationship between advertising and editorial but, these days, her views are quite valid.

The contribution of Jim Macnamara, Professor of Public Communication University of Technology Sydney, is one of the most significant (PDF).

There is very good research into PR evaluation here and there are some excellent blogs on the subject which are listed on Katie's blog under 'Best Sources for more measurement info'

Well, now we know where I stand.

Now for the Ethics part.

I suppose its worth looking at different approaches to ethics and ethical behaviour.

Ethics in PR is quite complicated and I outline some of the considerations in slides to accompany my ethics lectures to undergraduates.

AVE's are a utilitarian approach to publicity. They provide happiness and least pain for the greatest number of people involved. Namely the agency and the client managers involved. However the consequentionalist use of AVE's, if determined solely by consequences or production of the greatest good consequences and least bad, have to be considered as does the need for everyone affected to have universal and equal consequential benefit. If you like, this might be how John Stuart Mill, might take a view of AVE's. He might like them especially because of the quality of happiness they bring to so many.

All well and dandy, until one begins to apply Bentham's theory. If AVE's are not proven and the company auditor says they cannot be added to the value of the company's goodwill, then they are bad from an ethical standpoint even from a utilitarian perspective.

A Kantian view would ask if such actions are universalisable. If they are, then they would apply in every case. We know this is not possible (how would one apply AVE's to a BBC post on one of its many blogs?).

Bernard Williams would, of course have a fit. He would see the doctrine of negative responsibility for the fact that AVE's are OK as a measure but only among a small clique of publicist as an affront.

Perhaps we should use descriptive ethics and do what people think is right. We might choose normative ethics and ask how should people (practitioners) act or perhaps we might consider applied ethics and take moral knowledge and put it into the practice of using AVE's.

So where do PR practitioner get guidance?

The CIPR code of conduct asks of members to respect the customs, practices and codes of clients, employers, colleagues, fellow professionals and other professions in all countries where they practise.

Thus it would seem that if a client likes to use AVE's that's fine and ethically utilitarian.

On the other hand the Institute says its members deal honestly and fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions and the public. This would suggest that practitioners will honestly reflect the advertising value of editorial coverage and will apply integrity (part of the code) by checking the reliability and accuracy of information before dissemination. That makes AVE's bad ethics.

This is not unlike the PRCA code which says its members have a positive duty at all times to respect the truth and shall not disseminate false or misleading information knowingly or recklessly, and to use proper care to avoid doing so inadvertently.

And PRCA member agencies also must have regard to all the circumstances of the specific situation and in particular the complexity of the issue, case, problem or assignment, and the difficulties associated with its completion such as, for example, measuring editorial as though it was some form of advertising.

Now, if we take the view of people like Jim Macnamara that there is no such thing as editorial and advertising equivalency add to it a view of ethics (utilitarian or otherwise) then members of the CIPR and PRCA will not use AVE's because it is unethical.

Is there then an ethical case for using AVE's and is it ethical to use them in contravention of the codes of conduct which are the ethical basis of membership of the professional bodies?

At a time when the banks and UK parliamentarians are facing ethics issues as never before the questions associated with AVE's are significant, as is much management practice, now a potential problem for the practice of publicists and public relations practitioners.