Best in-house team: corporate communications
Marks & Spencer
It’s been a busy and stressful year for the in-house communications team at Marks & Spencer. Even chairman Archie Norman, a seasoned retailer, admitted the environment was challenging, describing the turnaround as the ‘most intractable’ of his career back in June 2023. But a lot can happen in six months; Norman has since updated his view. The turnaround is at last ‘taking hold’, he has declared.
It was all so different in October 2022, when a new executive team used a capital markets day and a colleague town hall to unveil a new five-year strategy Reshaping for Growth.
With nine new priorities, from cost savings to creating exceptional products worthy of a trusted brand to accelerating the store rotation programme, which meant closing low performers, revamping some existing stores and opening more Simply Foods, there were a lot of opportunities and challenges for the team.
After suffering ’25 years of drift’, in the chairman’s words, the comms team needed to convince investors that the new strategy would deliver results, convince their 60,000 colleagues that this time it would be different and, finally, convince more than 30 million customers that something new was afoot. Other stakeholders, from the government to local communities, partners and NGOs, also needed to understand our story so that they could see the benefits.
At a team awayday, the communications strategy was agreed. The role of the team, it was agreed, was to ‘build and maintain trust and relevance in the business through market-leading corporate affairs and reputation management’.
Six principles would underpin all their work. The team would be:
- Customer champions: the customer always comes first, and comms was on its side
- Colleague-led: great colleagues make great business, so comms would help them tell their stories
- Connected: comms would think across all stakeholders and channels
- Conversationalists: dialogue with all stakeholders was vital
- Campaigning: comms was clear in what it stood for, and proactive and holistic in how it works
- Collaborative: both with each other, the business and its stakeholders
With a five-year strategy, it was decided to focus on priorities for the early years where the business already had a strong position. Clear outcomes were identified from the outset. Every member of the team contributed, and to ensure such collaboration continued, a new fortnightly planning huddle was launched.
Every team member joins the huddle, drawing on knowledge from their partnerships across business units, bringing the outside in while mapping opportunities and risks for the organisation. It is never the same person chairing the huddle, providing openings for emerging talent, which also means that the focus is less about the function and channels but about the issues. Colleagues bring campaigns they are working on or ideas to develop within a wider team.
The team built a two-way communication channel with chief executive Stuart Machin, which aligns with the second principle of the business strategy (a high-performance culture). Colleagues are encouraged to submit ideas and suggestions to improve the business. More than 12,000 suggestions have been made, involving 99 per cent of stores, and 250 ideas have borne fruit, such as braille gift cards and stammer symbols on badges. The team have also hosted Straight to Stuart LIVE events, where colleagues’ ideas are discussed live by M&S leadership.
Separately, the team has rebuilt consumer confidence its clothing and home ranges by showcasing products and highlighting the teams behind them. For example, head of womenswear Maddy Evans featured in a Times report, with the headline The woman who turned M&S from frumpy to fashionable.
It has also handled the launch of 11 new and renewed stores, including flagships in Leeds and Liverpool, while engaging with the government to influence changes to import controls into Northern Ireland. This took place against a year of improving profits and a return to the FTSE 100 – all of which had to be communicated to colleagues and other stakeholders.
The judges said there was ‘a sense of real energy in this new team. The collaborative approach to establishing the comms strategy led to prioritising the first five years, which avoided the trap of many busy comms teams of trying to do it all at once.’
They added that, while initiatives such as Straight to Stuart, weren’t original, they had resulted in real change and suggestions being enacted. ‘Often nothing happens,’ said one.