Simon Brooks, an Account Director for MSL London, writes about what M & S can – and can’t – learn from Next’s recent good fortune.
Two of Britain’s biggest retailers, Next and Marks & Spencer have enjoyed contrasting fortunes – and press coverage – recently.
Marks & Spencer’s recently announced a seventh consecutive quarterly fall in clothing sales (although this was offset by a rise in food sales) to a generally underwhelmed reaction. Two of the more charitable headlines: ‘Marks and Spencer food sales offset clothing weakness’ (the BBC) and ‘the hot cross bun has saved Marks & Spencer – the Jekyll and Hyde of retail’ (The Telegraph) are hardly ringing endorsements of a company on the move.
Then, on 17 April, their ‘Knicker Queen’ – M & S’s newly appointed head of lingerie and beauty – quit after just three months in her role, grabbing further unwanted media attention and leaving big question marks over their future strategy and direction. The exit of Janie Schaffer, reportedly over a lack of control over the marketing of her range, was markedly in contrast with the reception and coverage that Next received on the same day.
‘Is this the most generous man in Britain?’ queried the Metro, on the news that Next’s Chief Executive Lord Wolfson had asked for his £2.4m bonus to be shared amongst his 20,000 employees. Before anyone worries about his children’s education, it is worth noting that Next’s performance had meant that he’d already received a 13 per cent pay rise to £4.6million that year. Nonetheless, the generous and rare gesture captured the imagination of the business press.
There are several PR lessons that can be learnt from this. Most importantly – and this is not something that many who work in the industry will need telling –it is what the company actually does that will do most to generate good or bad headlines. M & S continue to perform below the expectations of analysts (albeit not disastrously so) and continue to receive poor coverage. Next – and for that matter John Lewis – perform well and receive the plaudits. PR can help shape and explain a story, but it cannot alter reality. M & S’s headlines will continue to be tied to their share price.
Secondly, a strong figurehead matters. Mark Boland has big shoes to fill, taking over from his predecessor, Sir Stuart Rose. Mr Boland has been able to provide little more than ‘jam tomorrow’ type quotes in recent coverage, only noting that M & S can do better and promising improved lines in autumn-winter. The media relishes strong, sound-bite friendly leaders. Whilst personality without performance is not enough, it can make a difference to the tenor of the overall coverage – and help those all-important key messages get through.
Thirdly, if something is truly exceptional – and all PRs will have pushed plenty of announcements that are not –the coverage will be too. Plenty of bosses take bonuses of £2.4 million, but few give them away to their staff. Man Bites Dog as the quote and the agency would have it.
M & S needs to apply lessons one and two – and quickly. Unless the performance of their clothing business improves, their headlines will remain the same. If their results improve, then PR and investor relations can help the business and the business figureheads tell their story. It is only then that they need to worry about the application of lesson three.
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