Lorian Coutts's departure this week from the helm of B&Q's comms operation comes barely a month after parent company Kingfisher reportedly became this year's worst-performing firm in the FTSE 100.
B&Q is shedding more than a quarter of 1,400 head-office jobs and closing 22 stores. It has ditched its long-running 'You can do it if you B&Q it' slogan for 'B&Q: the real deal'. Its profits also fell by 34 per cent to £144m in the first six months of this year.
The company's corporate comms manager Jacqueline Caston – now B&Q's most senior communicator (PRWeek, 25 November) – points out it is far from the only retailer suffering at the moment.
But Britain's biggest DIY brand is a bellwether for a sector under the spotlight. In September the Daily Mail ran an article headlined 'DIY RIP?'. It was the latest in a run of articles that question whether factors such as falling leisure time, the demise of makeover shows such as the BBC's Changing Rooms, and a realisation that we can't all be Handy Andy, have spawned a DIY backlash.
Despite B&Q's decision not to replace Coutts, it hopes proactive PR can play its part in a much-needed revival.
Of all the DIY retailers, the firm still has the most comprehensive PR support: Caston is at the helm of a six-strong team, with agency support for consumer PR (The Red Consultancy) and corporate comms (Hill & Knowlton) on board.
But what will get the punters stocking up on paint pots and power drills again? Sophie Cooke, director at Cooke & Brand PR – which promotes retailer Ikea – says only an astute media relations strategy can help bring customers back.
'There are any number of interior design, decorating and DIY media to target, and regional PR is very important for big retailers,' she says. 'In-store promotions and competitions based around seasonal events usually generate good local news coverage.'
Another challenge for B&Q and its competitors is the move of supermarkets into the home-improvement arena – a concept that could appeal to those women who find warehouse-style DIY stores 'macho' and intimidating. But Jill Gater, PR manager at rival chain Focus, says she does not regard supermarkets as a serious threat.
'PR plays a big part in our marketing strategy – especially when it comes to launching projects – and we haven't felt it necessary to change our strategy because of competition from supermarkets,' she says.
Homebase media relations manager Kathryn Thomas agrees: 'PR is clearly important in showcasing our business offering. Grocers are becoming part of the competition, but they have not driven specific change in our PR strategy.'
Superior ranges should also give DIY chains the edge over supermarkets, Cooke argues. 'DIY chains can position themselves as experts,' she says. 'Supermarkets are never going to be able to compete with the amount of stock or the range of products offered by DIY stores, whose staff will be able to give better advice.'
Whether women feel intimidated by DIY stores is open to debate, but the chains are certainly making more of an effort to target female shoppers. Dawn Lappin, account group head at Focus agency Communique, explains: 'Men have traditionally been the doers and buyers, but women are increasingly inspiring the project or purchase in the first place. As a result, PR programmes reflect the purchasing triggers for women of colour and design, and more practical, nuts-and-bolts DIY for males.'
Travis Perkins-owned Wickes has given BMA Communications – confirmed as its agency only last week (PRWeek, 25 November) – a brief to 'target female consumers through areas in stores dedicated to kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms and conservatories', according to agency director Lindsay Morgan.
The builders' market
At the other end of the market are builders' merchants such as Jewson, which despite being open to DIY-ers has a core market of jobbing builders.
'Our brief is to target the building industry exclusively, which means coverage in trade, regional and national media,' explains Andrew Smith, head of PR at Jewson agency Target, which bagged Jewson plenty of coverage with its 'Builders from Heaven' campaign earlier in the year. Bemoaning the portrayal of builders on TV shows such as Rogue Traders, and the industry's skills shortage, the Daily Mirror supported Target's campaign to 'find the best builders on earth', resulting in trade and regional press articles.
Red declined to comment on B&Q's strategy, while H&K failed to return calls. Caston herself would only say: 'We are working closely with our marketing colleagues to drive footfall and create excitement around our new seasonal ranges as we have done consistently throughout the year.'
Ultimately, the challenge for the company is similar to that facing most high-street retailers, or indeed supermarkets – to build brand loyalty via consumer and trade campaigns illustrating the breadth and depth of a changing offering.
For B&Q and its competitors, a consumer-spending upswing cannot come soon enough.
DIY: the top brands and their PR teams
The Kingfisher-owned chain has 308 stores. It uses The Red Consultancy for consumer PR and Hill & Knowlton for corporate comms. A six-strong in-house team is headed by Jacqueline Caston.
The 175-store brand uses BMA Communications for consumer and trade PR. Corporate comms is handled by parent Travis Perkins' in-house team. A two-strong in-house team is run by PR manager Avis Robinson.
The GUS-owned firm has 290 outlets. It uses GCI London for consumer PR, while corporate comms is handled by Finsbury. A three-strong media relations team reports to head of corporate affairs Steve O'Brian.
Focus, which has 256 stores, uses Communique for consumer and corporate PR. A two-strong in-house PR team is run by PR manager Jill Gater.
Jewson, owned by Saint-Gobain Building Distribution Group, has 450 stores. Target PR reports to marketing director Lindsey Walker, head of a nine-strong marketing team.