FOCUS - PRESS CUTTINGS: Cut to the chase. Love ’em or loathe ’em, press cuttings agencies are an essential tool for the public relations professional and understanding how they operate is key to getting the best value from them. Suzan Leav

The relationship between PR people and their press cuttings agencies can often be a strained one. Many cutting agencies feel that they don’t have enough input from their PR clients, while PR people admit to often wondering who is the client in the relationship.

The relationship between PR people and their press cuttings

agencies can often be a strained one. Many cutting agencies feel that

they don’t have enough input from their PR clients, while PR people

admit to often wondering who is the client in the relationship.



A typical consultancy scenario is one where the client phones up and

asks why they haven’t received a certain press cutting which a third

party has told them about. The PR agency hasn’t seen it, so it is time

to make the excuses, contact the cuttings agency and berate them for

their incompetence.



This Under the Spotlight looks at the most common questions PR

practitioners ask of cuttings agencies, and gives the service providers

a chance to have their say, with the aim of improving understanding

between them.





Why do you miss cuttings?



’The problem I think most companies have with their cuttings agencies is

that it is always the cutting that they miss that is the one cutting you

really need,’ says Venessa Holtham, an associate director at Joe Public

Relations.



’Even if they have a really wide reading list, once in a while they will

miss one and it is always the one the the client really wants,’ agrees

David Vindel, associate board director at Band and Brown. ’And it then

takes them a while to find it.’



Fleishman-Hillard account director Fiona Ellis adds: ’We really do

depend on them and the worst thing is when they miss something and it is

from a publication that we don’t get in the office. That is the time

when the client always phones and says ’have you seen this?’. It seems

to be just the case that the times when they slip up is the time when

the client most needs the cutting.’



And Adrian Brady, joint managing director at Eulogy, says: ’Of course it

is embarrassing when a client phones up about a missed cutting. For lots

of clients that sort of thing can be very far reaching, so we have to

rely on our relationship with the cuttings agency.’



Cuttings agencies are quick to hold their hands up and admit that

missing some cuttings is inevitable. But they also say that PR clients

can help to try to eliminate the number of cuttings missed by giving

their agency as much information as possible about the clients they are

cutting for, and campaigns being worked on.



’It is a fact that we will miss cuttings, all agencies do,’ says Jon

Shepherd, director of marketing and sales at Durrants, which reads 4,000

titles a week. ’It’s really useful if we can be added to the mailing

list to receive press releases and to know what the company does. We

need to put the keywords we read for in context, as it really helps to

reinforce the memory of the reader.’



And at Romeike and Curtice, which reads 4,400 publications a week, sales

and marketing manager Angela Webb agrees: ’Generally we have a good

relationship with our clients, but a missed cutting sours it.



’We need as much information as possible on the campaigns the client is

working on. We have got to learn more about the PR companies and what

their expectations are. I know that time is very precious but we need to

meet the account handlers if possible and talk through the brief, and be

far more involved.’



The Romeike Group was bought by Sweden’s Sifo Group in December 1999 for

pounds 120 million and Webb claims that R&C is becoming more client

focused.



At House of Cuttings, which reads up to 1,400 publications a week,

managing director Alison Speller says: ’In a business that is very

manual there will be missed cuttings. It is a big bugbear and it does

happen, but it depends on how often it happens and how it is dealt with.

Often we find out that it is something that didn’t appear or is from a

publication that we don’t read or have not received yet. Very often it

can be outside our control.’





What do you do internally about missed cuttings and why does it take so

long to find it when we have alerted you?



A common complaint from PR clients is that cuttings agencies seem to

either take forever to locate a missed cutting or just send it on

without any acknowledgment that they have made a mistake. As the press

cuttings process is essentially a production line, the cuttings agencies

say they can locate the missing cuttingmore quickly if they are told

where it is.



And, as it is the reader’s raison d’etre to find cuttings, it is they

who are targeted within the cuttings agency.



’As soon as we find out we have missed a cutting we will locate it and

then look at the reading instruction,’ says Shepherd. ’But we need to

locate the cutting quickly and that is only possible if the client tells

us where the cutting is. So we need as much information as possible from

the client, which is awkward. But the more we have, the quicker we can

put it through. A headline and page number is always helpful.



’Then we’ll put it in front of the reader and ask why they missed it.

They either have no excuse or they’ll say ’oh I didn’t realise, I

thought it was that other company’ which can then be addressed.’



Speller at House of Cuttings takes a tougher approach. ’It is helpful if

we can find out as much as possible about a missed cutting. Every time

we will go back to the reader and find out why they missed it,’ she

says.



’If readers do miss a cutting we treat it as a training exercise -

either they don’t understand the brief or are not reading properly. Or

it could just be about aptitude - some people just can’t do it.



’We have readers in geographical areas whereby they are accountable for

that area, and we have a ’three strikes and you’re out’ policy for

readers.’





Why do some cuttings take so long to come through?



’I do think cuttings agencies should appreciate that if we get a cutting

quickly and it is a bad story then we can react to it quickly, but often

it is just too late,’ says Clare Craven, account director at Cake.



’This becomes a problem at regional level, as often if a bad story is

printed there it can escalate and become national news. It is down to us

as the PR agency to prevent that from happening, especially if the story

is wrong.



’When I have something happening in the regions, I make sure that the

cuttings company has that release, as I appreciate that it is a huge job

to read everything and the problem often comes with the smaller regional

weeklies.’



Holtham at Joe Public Relations adds: ’Timing can be a major issue as

you can get clients who want things fairly last-minute, or we wait for a

long time to get cuttings from regional press. It shouldn’t be beyond

the realms of the companies to get them. But perhaps we do expect

miracles at times.’



Fleishman-Hillard’s Ellis agrees: ’Sometimes it feels like it can take a

long time for them to actually get cuttings to you, but this can mainly

be in the regional or trade press. The client gets impatient, but you

just have to explain that it is beyond your control.’



From the in-house point of view, Olivia Cullis, head of corporate

communications for Europe at Delta Airlines, says: ’As the nature of a

press office is immediacy, one of the downsides of using a cuttings

agency is that it is not necessarily a foolproof way of getting a

cutting when you need it, unless you go for the expensive option of

getting them delivered on the day. If you really need a particular

cutting you can usually track it down yourself.’



Romeike’s Webb admits that the problem largely lies with the regional

weekly press: ’We try to read them within about five days of receiving

them but that depends on when they are posted to us.



’We don’t know the importance of cuttings until we find them, as we are

very much in the hands of the local papers. And it is inevitable that

the one paper that arrives late is the one with the cuttings in it.’



And Shepherd at Durrants agrees that it is speed of delivery of cuttings

from the weekly regional press that clients most often complain about,

but says every cuttings agency has to prioritise.



’The weekly regionals come out on Thursdays and Fridays and so it will

be a few days before we get them. They are given a lower priority to

some other publications so they may not be read until the following

Friday with cuttings going out on Monday.



’This isn’t realistically changeable unless you get thousands of

readers.



And there is just no way that we can get these papers before the people

who receive them through their letterboxes.’





Why do we get so many irrelevant cuttings?



’In terms of accuracy it is not only about finding all the cuttings, but

also about eliminating unwanted cuttings. We have a system of filters,

but more general subjects or keywords mean that a lot of it is down to

the subjective view of the reader,’ says Shepherd at Durrants.



’But clients should also send the unwanted cuttings back and they are

taken off their bill. We will then put it in front of the reader and ask

them why and then we can open up a dialogue with the clients because you

get some intelligent decisions made by readers. The worst thing is if

you find out that clients have been putting unwanted cuttings in the

bin.’



Webb at R&C says: ’Sometimes irrelevant cuttings are sent and the PR

agency doesn’t send them back as they are too busy. However, if that

happens the reader assumes they are correct.’



’People will sometimes phone after, say, three months and say ’it’s not

working’ and want to cancel the order. This is a problem we are trying

to address by aiming to make sure that the order won’t run that long

before someone phones to check that everything is okay.’





Why do cuttings agencies have such a bad relationship with their PR

clients?



’In our relationships with suppliers we like to think there is loyalty

on both sides. With press cuttings agencies, I feel like I’m a teacher

chastising them,’ says Brady at Eulogy.



’It should be a partnership, it’s not something I want to buy as a

commodity.



I hope that they would treat me the same way that I treat my clients -

not in a defensive way, and holding their hands up if they make a

mistake.’



Holtham says: ’I think that PR agencies need to apply the same rules as

they do to clients - we expect our clients to be straight with us.



We are often not as clear as we should be and we have to ask ourselves

’did we give them the right brief?’’



’They can be very defensive when you telephone them about a missed

cutting, but they can also go out of their way to help you.’



Ellis at Fleishman-Hillard adds: ’I have had some cuttings agencies who

have been a bit awkward and have given the impression that it is a bit

too much effort to do something extra or a bit different and sometimes

you feel like a bit of a nuisance. But you can often be left high and

dry if they can’t help you.’



Lucinda Buxton, PR manager at London hotel One Aldwych, says it does not

bother her if she has to call and alert cuttings companies to a cutting

that they have missed, but says: ’I would like more client contact. It

would be useful if they could periodically phone me and if I could have

the name of a sales contact, as I don’t think it is the client who

should have to call.’



Webb at R&C responds: ’Perhaps we have been shortsighted, but the same

goes for the PR industry. We are both at fault but we now want to be

more client-focused. I can see why the relationship would sour on some

occasions.



The fact that we are a very old and established company can work both

for and against us. It has to be a two-way exchange. We will admit that

we may have been quite poor at this in the past.’



Shepherd at Durrants agrees that it is time both sides started working

towards having a better relationship.



’PR agencies pass on an unrealistic expectation to their clients. If

they were more realistic in the first place, it would really help the

relationship,’ he says.



’There is a lot that could be done to make the relationship work

better.



We want people to treat us as another department within their

organisation, and to have a less adversorial relationship.’



PR agencies in particular can seem unwilling to dedicate much time to

ensuring that they are getting the very best from their cuttings

supplier.



The press cuttings agencies admit that they do get things wrong. Rather

ironically it would seem that better communication between both sides

could radically improve the relationship, and help to eliminate many of

the problems experienced by both parties.





WHAT LIFE’S REALLY LIKE AT THE CUTTING EDGE OF THE NEWS



Jon Shepherd, director of marketing and sales at Durrants, says many

clients have a ’fuzzy cloud’ around what cuttings agencies actually

do.



The company’s offices in the St Luke’s area of London house a production

process that is so labour-intensive that it is reminiscent of a factory

floor.



Clients will brief a cuttings agency and let them know why they want

certain cuttings. The most common way that most cuttings agencies locate

articles is by looking out for ’key words’ given to them by clients.



At Durrants, when the day’s publications arrive, teams of readers work

at desks with a computer each and cover publications in a certain

sequence.



It takes six to eight weeks to train as a reader and they are trained in

various reading techniques, such as mind-mapping, an exercise in word

association which helps to cover large amounts of text quickly.



The reading teams at Durrants work on a shift basis. Night readers start

work at 11pm and read the first editions of the national newspapers and

then every subsequent edition.



The reader keys into their computer the name of the publication he or

she is reading. The screen lists all of the keywords next to clients’

names and their instructions.



The reader will then go through their allocated publications taking into

account the key words and requirements of every client. As they come

across a relevant piece of information they will use the computer to log

where on the page the cutting is and any relevant instructions to the

cutter.



The computer software also prevents the reader from logging in cuttings

for clients who don’t want them from certain publications.



Once the publication is read, the computer prints out forms with the

instructions to the cutters, and schedules the order in which the

publications should be cut.



The cuttings are then cut and mounted on huge tables by scalpel-wielding

cutters. Once this is done, the pieces of paper with the mounted

cuttings on them are sorted alphabetically by order number into

bins.



Then it is on to the delivery rooms where they are sorted into client

folders. Those clients who have complained about receiving irrelevant

cuttings have a yellow tag assigned to their folder. This ensures that

their cuttings are read once more by a senior reader before being posted

out. The filing system enables cuttings to be slipped straight away into

envelopes with the client name on them and they are then sent out.



With over 4,000 publications being read, it is essential that there is a

production-line process in place, but it is also one of the reasons,

says the cuttings agencies, that clients claim that they are slow to

react to any changes in instructions. Even though the agency may react

immediately, they have to notify all of the people who are part of that

process. The production line cannot be interrupted or have people going

back taking out the cuttings that have already been found, so the next

few cuttings that the client gets may be irrelevant.



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