Gershon told PRWeek he personally received 70 emails on Thursday evening last week after the tweet from the parody Twitter account @Wetherspoon_UK went viral. The account has 26,000 followers but declares itself a parody in its biography.
Due to the ever expanding multiculturalism of our clientele and employees this year our staff will not be wearing the poppy while working.— WETHERSP00N_NOT (@Wetherspoon_UK) October 23, 2017
The post met with hundreds of angry responses as many people appeared to think the spoof account was genuine. There were calls to boycott the chain, which operates almost 1,000 pubs in the UK and Ireland.
"I started getting lots of emails, so did the chief executive, so did others," said Gershon.
"There were hundreds. I probably received 70 emails [from the public] on Thursday night. Ninety-five per cent said: 'This is fake news isn’t it? I don’t believe Wetherspoon's would do this.' I personally responded to each and every email, saying: 'It’s fake news, it’s a spoof account, this is completely untrue.'"
"A lot of emails came back to me saying: 'I thought that would be the case, thanks for clarifying.' In a way it’s a back-handed compliment."
Regarding the response, Gershon said: "We put a message on Twitter, we put a message on Facebook and on the website. We never really changed the statement; people were asking for an updated statement but there never really was an update.
We do support the Poppy Appeal in all of our pubs. Please ignore spoof sites.— J D Wetherspoon (@jdwtweet) October 26, 2017
- Wetherspoon Official pic.twitter.com/pvmApxvCIN
"We weren’t expecting it, but we dealt with it effectively, quite simply. It did just back up the view that most people have of Wetherspoon's; that it’s a good company, it wouldn’t do this kind of thing, would it? It does show reputation is very relevant."
Gershon said he received just 15 emails about the issue over the weekend.
Asked his advice for dealing with fake news, Gershon said: "Put a statement out, put it out quickly, make it to the point.
"It’s the typical Wetherspoon's way: you get on with it. You don’t spend hours thinking of what to do. You’re better off, in my opinion, putting out a 25-word statement straight away rather than pontificating about a 500-word statement you put out 10 hours later."
No comment on comment
Gershon contrasted his approach to the issue with that of another negative story about the pub company this weekend.
Sunday Times food reviewer Marina O’Loughlin, the successor to the late AA Gill, wrote a scathing report on a Wetherspoon's pub in Ramsgate, Kent. That article, published yesterday, was in turn picked up by local news publications, as well as The Independent and the Mirror.
Gershon said: "If someone puts something out that is factually incorrect, we will contact the paper or the journalist. But if it’s a review or an editorial comment, that is their point of view. We will not comment on that.
"With the [poppy saga], it’s different because it’s factually incorrect and it could turn into an urban myth. We need to knock it on the head straight away."
Gershon said two other spoof Wetherspoon's Twitter accounts run by one person had previously been shut down, although it is unclear whether action would be taken against the account responsible for the poppy spoof.
Former trade press journalist Gershon has represented Wetherspoon's since 1990 via his eponymous agency. In 2015 his account with the company was extended until August 2021.