Brexit-Loving Pub Landlord Is Chucking Out the Internet

(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- British pub chain JD Wetherspoon Plc this week announced on social media that it's quitting social media. Its boss, Tim Martin, says the move is about setting an example to people addicted to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook who "struggle" to kick the habit.

Silicon Valley shouldn't fret, though. While there's merit to the idea of corporations pruning their online presence, Martin isn't an obvious standard-bearer for civil discourse or careful communication. He's unlikely to get many corporate followers.

Indeed, his offline messaging often seems a bigger brand risk to his 900 pubs than anything tweeted by drinkers. Before the U.K. vote on EU membership in 2016, Martin printed 200,000 pro-Brexit beer mats -- when most bosses were trying desperately to avoid taking a stance. The mats attacked the head of the IMF and advised customers to vote Leave and "take back control." It might not have harmed business overall, but there were some boycotts.

Even usually bland financial filings are used as a pulpit to attack people who disagree with him (and to bash Europe). His most recent missive singled out the head of Britain's main business lobby, the CEOs of J Sainsbury Plc and Whitbread Plc, and "most of the City and the Financial Times" as purveyors of "daft" ideas.

Next to this, the Wetherspoon Twitter feed seemed rather harmless. It's gone from our screens, but one compilation of its "greatest hits" shows a weird and wonderful mix of bathroom selfies, pub décor analysis, and questions about the price of a fry-up. Yes, there were pranks too: A hoax about Wetherspoons banning poppies caused some head office panic, but a sharp denial stopped the story spreading. Now it thinks its best communication strategy is sticking to the U.K. press. "Give me a 200-word story in The Sun or The Times any day," a Wetherspoon's rep told PR Week.

None of this is to say that companies in general shouldn't be looking again at their online presence. Many brands have piled onto social media without much of a clue about why they're there, according to the Harvard Business Review, often aiming for followers or user engagement without clear targets. A survey of chief marketing officers shows almost half of firms haven't been able to demonstrate any useful impact from using social media.

There's already a long history of corporate fails, from the Microsoft chat-bot expressing fascist sympathies to the U.S. Airways tweet carrying a pornographic image.

But most of the online problems are about how to stay in control: including how to communicate without over-sharing, how to sound human without going off-message and how to stay consistent across platforms. Such concerns don't really seem to apply to Martin, so we shouldn't read too much into his abandonment of the twittersphere. The pub landlord act is fine if you run a pub group, less so for anyone else.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering finance and markets. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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