Flop of the Month: Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin sends wrong messages

In the battle of the UK corporate big beasts, one stood above all others as PRWeek's Flop of the Month.

Martin said: 'There's been hardly any transmission of the virus within pubs' (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Martin said: 'There's been hardly any transmission of the virus within pubs' (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Following a truly dreadful series of missteps, JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin pipped Richard Branson, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, Gordon Ramsay, and even serial PR disaster artist Mike Ashley to the ignoble honour.

The quintet all appeared hugely out of touch and uncaring for their treatment of employees, in particular as the coronavirus crisis intensified in March.

Martin initially told Wetherspoons' 43,000 staff they would not be paid until the beginning of the government programme to cover 80 per cent of salaries of workers temporarily laid off, which could be at the end of April. The pub chain later reversed the decision after a backlash.

Martin's way of communicating compounded the problem. In a widely-reported video to staff, he suggested they could take jobs at Tesco.

It may have been a sincere attempt to give practical advice and offer some solace. But the video had echoes of 'let them eat cake' – and served to focus more attention on why the multi-millionaire wouldn't personally help Wetherspoon employees.

Martin also received sharp criticism for withholding supplier payments until the forced pub closures ended.

His biggest failing, however, proceeded the forced closures, when he publicly questioned advice to avoid pubs and restaurants to minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19.

"There's been hardly any transmission of the virus within pubs," was Martin's extraordinary suggestion in an interview with Sky.

The claim smacked of supreme arrogance - why does Martin think he knows better than the medical experts? It was also massively irresponsible at a time when reducing person-to-person contact was crucial to curb the pandemic.

Piers Morgan was among those to attack the Wetherspoons boss for his comments.

For many years, Martin's knack for an effective soundbite and tendency to have a controversial view has made him a dream interviewee, especially in the often drab world of corporate news.

A qualified barrister and genuinely effective communicator, he has a way of making arguments sound at least vaguely plausible, even to those who disagree with him.

But this is not like Brexit, Scottish independence, or smoking in pubs. There's a health emergency and Martin's statements were counterproductive and dangerous.

#BoycottWetherspoons was trending on Twitter for a while and there's evidence of real anger against Martin and his pub chain.

Whether the ill will translates into fewer customers when the pubs reopen, time will tell. In the meantime, Wetherspoons should focus on doing the right thing towards its staff and suppliers, if not wider society.

And, unless he has something useful to say, Martin should probably keep his opinions to himself for a while.

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