City & Corporate: Pubs told to agree a 'core message'

The UK pub industry has been advised to drive home a strong and unified message to combat the brutal market conditions being experienced by UK pub companies.

As well as facing the effects of a consumer slowdown, the sector has been hit hard by the smoking ban, increased alcohol duty, supermarket competition and a government PR drive targeting irresponsible drinking.

One industry source accused pub companies of 'infighting and bickering'. The source added: 'There has not been a consistent message. The key now is to agree a core message to consumers and government and speak as a single voice.'

Meanwhile, supermarkets have successfully passed the responsibility for the binge drinking culture almost exclusively to pubs, according to some observers.

'Binge drinking is a key issue,' agreed Mark Hastings, director of comms at the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA). 'Pubs are not benefiting from it and need to challenge that public misconception.'

Some industry insiders have mooted the idea of a concerted industry PR campaign around pubs in much the same way as the Milk Marketing Board successfully promoted milk. However, such a PR campaign is likely to have to wait until the binge drinking furore has been defused.

The natural industry response to tough conditions may be to batten down the hatches, but one PR executive said a more open strategy was needed. 'The companies communicating most efficiently are those communicating most bluntly,' he said.

A unified industry voice may be important, but it could also be vital to drill down PR efforts into individual regions and pubs. While most in the sector have suffered, JD Wetherspoon has at least recorded positive like-for-like figures for 2007 - rewarding in part the firm's aggressive PR presence compared with many of its contemporaries.

'We concentrate on placing individual stories on individual pubs in the regional press,' said Eddie Gershon of Eddie Gershon Media Relations, which represents JD Wetherspoon. 'These tailored PR campaigns get a lot of publicity.'

The effects of the pub industry's perfect storm are clear to see - Punch Taverns did not pay investors a dividend after a decline in annual sales, JD Wetherspoon said full-year pre-tax profit fell by nearly 13 per cent and Enterprise Inns is poised to drop out of the FTSE 100.

The BBPA announced last week that the UK is seeing 36 pubs a week forced to close - 18 times higher than in 2005.

HOW I SEE IT - Jo Sheldon, Media director, Edelman

The national focus on binge drinking has seen pubs demonised to a level where people think antisocial behaviour is normal. Pubs need to look at ways of getting back to their local roots and show they add value to communities rather than take it away.

The drinks industry needs to unify to shift the binge drinking debate from being an industry issue to one of personal responsibility. The industry is spending more money than ever on responsible drinking programmes, but these need to clearly demonstrate how they are going to change consumer behaviour as right now they do not seem to be listening.

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