Chocolate pudding and M&S PR

Marks & Spencer is a favourite case study organisation for reflecting on public relations.  It is particularly interesting given that it had enjoyed a period of success that seemed to coincide with a change of strategy to a more open culture with stakeholders. 

It’s focus on the Plan A CSR strategy is often cited by students as evidence of an organisation engaged in pro-active issues management and engaging in dialogue with its publics.  This is contrasted with strategies in the 1990s when the company abandoned long held policies such as manufacturing in Britain.

Criticisms of the company back in 2001, highlighted the controlling manner of the then boss, Sir Richard Greenbury, drawing on a fascinating book by Judi Bevan

The current leader, Stuart Rose, had managed a PR turnaround being seen as charismatic and a good public communicator.  But there have been questions this year as a result of his decision to “flout normal corporate governance standards and combine the roles of chairman and chief executive”.

He is now said to be fighting for his job following a “shock profit warning” – so what role will PR play in determining the future of Rose, and M&S?

At the end of June, PR Week reported the company’s public affairs head was leaving.

Today the Telegraph reports: Chocolate pudding is the proof of Marks & Spencer crisis – identifying a number of management and marketing issues as problems.

Others criticise Plan A as being more about promises than a well thought out sustainability strategy.

A Google News search reveals hundreds of articles written today on the company – which hints at miles of print and broadcast coverage as the media vultures circle.  That is the really big challenge for the M&S team.  They will now find themselves on the back foot with the majority of their time spent being reactive and fighting large and small fires.

Then there’s the CEO PR issue as I wrote last May in respect of Lord Browne and BP.  The primary role of PR is to present the company perspective and implement effective communication strategies, especially in times of trouble.  But when the boss is in the firing line, at what point does he (or she) need expert counsel independent of the in-house team?

I’m not sure if Mr Rose has his own personal PR consultants, but his reputation is at threat – and impacting on the reputation of M&S as well.  At some point, Flic Howard-Allen, the company’s Award winning director of communications may need to decide if she is working for Rose, or M&S.  Having been with the company since 2002 (after 15 years at H&K), she’s a pretty smart operator (I recall meeting her at a WPP training event back in 2000), whose tenure predates that of Rose.

Another tough communications challenge will be justifying a focus on social responsibility when the food market is ever more price oriented – will the public really care about the environment and other ethical issues when forced to tighten their belts.

Although if the credit crunch continues, we’ll all be craving the chocolate pudding to escape the daily depressing news stories.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.