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24 Jan 2014

Britain’s most controversial pub, or just media hype?

Posted on January 24, 2014 by

It might be a fairly rare event these days, but a new pub opening is still highly unlikely to get a mention beyond the local rag. It’s a tricky PR sell, even if you’ve persuaded a local soap star or footballer to pull the first pint.

Unless, that is, you open Britain’s first motorway services pub. In which case, you can expect TV cameras waiting by the front door, a phone that never stops ringing and a frenzy of tweeting.

That’s why our influencer of the week is JD Wetherspoon which, on Wednesday, opened the Hope And Champion bar at the Junction 2 services of the M40 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.

Yep, drivers can now pull off the motorway and have a beer before rejoining the traffic. The word ‘controversial’ doesn’t quite do it justice.

As you can see from this ITV.com pic, the bloke (“Tom”, apparently) who was served the first pint was instantly surrounded by photographers and camera crews, as if he’d just shook hands with the Devil.

Which, if you’re a road safety campaigner, he pretty much had. From the AA and RAC, to Brake and the Campaign Against Drink Driving, the condemnation has been loud and clear. A boozer open 21 hours a day, seven days a week, has no place in our motorway services, they say.

For the media, of course, it was manna from heaven. Nothing sells papers – or, just as importantly these days, drives website traffic – like controversy.

Vox pops were conducted, website comments were encouraged and Twitter debates were ignited.

Even our industry voice, PR Week, leaped into the fray and declared Wetherspoon’s move a ‘Miss’.

I’m not a fan of Wetherspoon’s pubs, wherever they’re located, but I do think they’ve handled the furore this week pretty well. They’ve maintained a “if we act responsibly, so will our customers” line all week, and you’ll struggle to find much of a mention of it even on their own website. By and large, they’ve left the media to it.

But is a motorway pub really as controversial as all this coverage would have us believe?

Wetherspoon has more than 800 pubs nationwide. Granted, a lot are in town centres, but a fair few are located at the side of a main road, so it’s a reasonable assumption that some customers will be drivers. Ditto every other pub chain. But no-one bats an eyelid when they open.

Unfortunately for PR people with local boozers to promote, a press release headed “Pub opens on A40” just isn’t going to cut it with the Daily Mail.

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