The company axed four senior figures last week, including its finance director after pre-tax profits dropped by ten per cent in the six months to 2 October.
As recently as 2002, M&S was crowned PRWeek's PR Wars Champion after attracting the most positive media coverage that year (measured by PressWatch).
'It's not just a PR problem, it's bigger than that. It had done an amazing job on communications, and Lifestore, for instance, was getting amazing press,' says one insider, referring to M&S's home retail venture that is set to close less than a year after launch.
'It's easy to get an M&S story in the press because it is such a heartland brand,' he explains. 'It's a British institution so journos want to know what it is doing and will almost certainly cover it.'
Delicate press relations
However, this has also acted as a constraint to the development of its media relations strategy. 'It is difficult to do exclusives,' says one figure familiar with the retailer's PR operations. 'Doing deals is a dangerous game because everyone thinks M&S is theirs and the fashion press do tend to hold vendettas.'
Mid-market newspapers are under enormous pressure to carry M&S stories. 'Fashion journalists on the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph will get kicked if they miss a story on M&S,' he adds.
Claudia Croft, fashion features director at The Sunday Times Style magazine, complains that titles such as hers are often overlooked by M&S's PR team because of the fierce competition between its core media titles, particularly the Daily Mail.
'You can't blame the PR as a whole - it has got to have the right products to start with but it could do more to tell people about what it has,' she says. 'Other (retailers) will phone me up to say "we've got a new cashmere jumper for only 'x' pounds" or just to keep us up to date, but M&S doesn't do that.'
Croft suggests M&S could do much more to capitalise on its 'unique position in the British consciousness', adding that 'M&S has a big splurge at the beginning of a season and organises major events that get coverage everywhere, but it doesn't follow that up'.
Liz Thody, creative and fashion director at Red, whose target readership matches the core M&S shopper of middle-aged women, says the retailer is proactive and open to offering exclusives. She says this is particularly true for initiatives that promise to introduce perspectives of the M&S brand, such as its Limited Collection of high-style items. Red was offered the magazine exclusive for the September launch of the range, for which M&S drafted in Modus Publicity for support.
Thody adds that M&S does a good job of sending out regular mailings: 'Particularly on the homes side, it produces really stylish Habitat-like catalogues that you would not expect from M&S. If it keeps on producing eye-catching press brochures it will continue to attract coverage.'
She adds that negative coverage has not stopped consumers buying M&S products. One agency executive, who handles PR for a lingerie brand distributed exclusively by M&S, agrees. She points out that while PR for the brand emphasises the fact that it is a unique collection, communicating its connection to M&S is just as important.
'It is easy to underestimate how much brand loyalty remains for M&S,' she says. 'Most people are keen to see it do well. There is still a lot of affection for M&S.'
Battle for positive coverage
However, as with fellow troubled institution WH Smith, M&S is facing competition on numerous fronts, with Top Shop, Next, Waitrose and Habitat concentrating their PR efforts on specific product areas.
M&S must be able to develop a communications model that can respond to this new landscape, but Evening Standard deputy fashion editor David Hayes sees little evidence of a developed media relations strategy. He says that instead, M&S relies on the fact that its large presence on British high streets guarantees coverage.
'It has come from an all-domineering position and doesn't try to ingratiate itself with journalists the way others do,' says Hayes. 'It is probably overwhelmed by dealing with demand (from the media) because of its iconic status.'
One strength M&S has always enjoyed is intense media interest in its new collections, and the retailer has always made a big deal out of its press days. However, this autumn's show has been delayed amid boardroom changes.
Hayes says journalists are eagerly awaiting the January press trips to see whether M&S will scale back its flamboyance and ambition. 'M&S is the only retailer whose press day becomes a news item. It hires great venues, has great food and presents it in a high-fashion way.'
He adds that all department stores 'need to look exciting', but asks whether M&S 'cleaning up its presentation in-store will be even more important'.
What is certain is that the media will be all ears, ready to report on M&S's every twist and turn.
M&S'S COMMUNICATIONS SET-UP
Former Hill & Knowlton board director Flic Howard-Allen heads a 45-strong PR function as director of comms. The in-house team includes 15 staff in the product press office and six for corporate and financial comms.
PR agencies are used on an ad hoc basis for specific sub-brands, collections and events. These have included Hards PR for beauty products, Purple PR, Staniforth Communications, Jackie Cooper PR and The Red Consultancy - with Lansons Communications and Brazen PR for M&S Money (recently sold to HSBC).
Press office: 020 8718 4313
Head of product PR: Tania Littlehales: 020 8718 2098
PR manager for womenswear, lingerie and beauty: Carol Richardson: 020
PR manager for menswear: Louise Worrell: 020 8718 8021
PR manager for home and childrenswear: Kate Canenti: 020 8718 8523
Head of corporate PR: Lisa Attenborough: 020 8718 6166