Ever since the publication of the Government's Public Health White Paper last autumn, the British pub industry has been on the defensive.
The document outlined proposals to ban smoking in licensed premises by 2008 - with the exception of those that do not serve food, where smoking would still be banned at the bar.
The industry had anticipated the proposals, which in theory could force punters partial to a quick drag to stay at home with a six-pack of beer.
But it had only just finished responding to the plans when, in January, the Daily Mail launched a campaign to pressure on Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell into scrapping the Licensing Act which, from November, will make it possible for pubs to stay open 24/7.
Following a similar campaign over the gambling bill, the Mail at one point claimed the support of pub chain JD Wetherspoon, though Wetherspoon subsequently called the Mail's campaign fundamentally misguided.
But to varying degrees the industry had already seen the writing on the wall. Enterprise Inns, Mitchells & Butlers, Punch Pub Company, Scottish & Newcastle Pub Enterprises and Spirit Group - all members of the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) - have already committed to gradually banning smoking in their pubs.
The BBPA also quickly issued a survey in which it claimed the pub industry was far from champing at the bit to supply boozers round the clock (see box).
Counting the cost
Groups such as Spirit that directly manage pub brands, including the Firkin Beer Co, and Enterprise Inns, whose pubs are managed by tenanted landlords, claim that it is simply too expensive to keep a non-stop but empty bar.
As a spokesman for Wetherspoon, which manages more than 600 pubs, says: 'People don't want to spend 24 hours of their day drinking. They have better things to do.'
The debate over smoking, changes to the Licensing Act and, by extension, public concerns over binge drinking, has, however, presented pub companies with an opportunity to leverage brands that are targeted at specific sections of the population.
SGI Group's decision last week to appoint Storm Communications to promote its Slug and Lettuce bars to urban professionals in their 20s and 30s, for example, contained a brief to present the pubs as health-conscious and ethical to attract the target audience and 'not binge-drinkers'.
Many pub groups insist that the tactics they use to promote individual brands will, for the most part, continue as before despite changes in the law.
Mitchells & Butlers head of communications Kate Glover says her company updated its responsible drinking policy last year, avoids two-for-one drink promotions and has not held happy hours for at least three years.
Instead, PR agencies attached to its bars, which include All Bar One, O'Neill's and Scream, continue to target the audiences most relevant to those brands. 'The issue is about operating a safe environment for all our customers,' Glover says. 'The benefit of the Licensing Act is flexibility.'
Similarly, Spirit Group head of communications Sarah Perrins says that PR around the act and the White Paper are largely confined to 'influencing the Government by working closely with the BBPA and producing case studies'.
Every day PR initiatives such as as darts competition in its John Barras pubs, where it handed out calculators to punters struggling with the arithmetic, continue unaffected; similarly to promote the wine range of its Chef & Brewer pubs it published a survey showing drinkers' tendency to go for the easy-to-pronounce, and therefore safer, option.
Daniel Pearce, news editor of industry magazine The Publican, says pub managers and their companies need to reconnect with the soft spot the local has in the British public's hearts. 'Pubs have had a real bashing PR-wise and have responded well,' says Pearce. 'But they need to focus more on the good things that pubs do and the part they play in our communities through activities like fundraising.'
Branded pub companies such as Spirit or JD Wetherspoon might find it more difficult to conjure the atmosphere of 'the local' than the tenanted pubs of a group such as Enterprise, where the landlord decides how to run promotions and marketing, with guidance from area managers and Enterprise's Leamington Spa-based pub network PR firm Vital.
But the managed pub groups also know how to appeal to the all-important local media by capitalising on the initiative of their enterprising pub managers. JD Wetherspoon, for example, was quick to tell the press how one of its Blackburn pubs had renamed a beer after one of its 85-year-old regulars.
All of this is a world away from the nightmare images of wall-to-wall-vomiting in the small hours as espoused by the Mail's campaign. Whether through individual branding or corporate messages, it is pubs' positive roles in their local communities that pub company PROs need to highlight.
WHERE THE PUB GROUPS STAND ON REGULATION
Earlier this month, a British Beer & Pub Association survey found that not one of the pubs owned by companies such as Enterprise Inns, Mitchells & Butlers, Punch Pub Company, Scottish & Newcastle Pub Enterprises and Spirit Group, planned to open for 24 hours when the 2003 Licensing Act is implemented in November 2005.
JD Wetherspoon, which is not a member of the BBPA, also has no plans to apply for 24-hour licences, although its pubs may extend hours to midnight for all-day service from 7am.
BBPA group members have agreed to ban smoking at the bar by the end of this year and are to make 80 per cent of trading floor space non-smoking within the next five years.
All JD Wetherspoon pubs opened since February (pictured) have been non-smoking. The chain expects more than 70 of its pubs to be non-smoking by May this year. It plans to make its entire 600-plus estate non-smoking by May 2006.