After a few days of me shouting at the TV every time that Farage/Coutts story came on, NatWest Group CEO has died on the hill of the former UKIP leader’s banking arrangements, which is a very silly place to beach your career. Following her resignation, I’m going to detail some communications lessons from the affair:
1. As we’ve seen since Watergate in the early 70s (and probably before), it’s usually the cover up that kills you, not the original crime. Had Coutts/NatWest/Rose not waded into the controversy, it would be well off the front pages by now. The withdrawal of banking services for political reasons is a big issue, but it’s an issue for the whole industry and would have moved into an investigation by the regulator/Treasury/MPs by now had it not been for the Farage spice. Dame Alison Rose could have handed it to one of her lieutenants to face the flack and would still be in role;
2. Bankers – like lawyers, doctors, Catholic priests and the Mafia – should have a code of omerta and not speak about their clients. Rose broke this protocol by briefing Simon Jack at a charity dinner, and that’s what ultimately did for her;
3. Even then, NatWest’s comms team and its advisors could’ve saved the day. Jack had to check his story, and they could have said: “It’s more complex than that, but we can’t go into more detail for reasons of client confidentiality.” I’ve dug CEOs out of worse pits than this in my time*;
4. Which asks the question, who was advising Rose? Since the experienced Nigel Prideaux’s departure, there doesn’t seem to be any communications representation on NatWest’s Executive Committee. I’m told the group is advised by Brunswick, which also seems to work for some of its rivals. As the saying goes: “Two is a conflict, three (or more) is a specialism.”
5. Business people are often at sea when an issue becomes a political football, because:
a. They are not prepared for how quickly the story snowballs, as politicians live and die by their speed of soundbite delivery, which fuels the news cycle;
b. It’s often hard for CEOs of large organisations to know the full story about what it going on in some corner of their empire because it’s not their main focus and their subordinates often don’t tell them the full story because they are busy Covering Their Backsides!
c. Very little in business compares to the viciousness of politics. I was once talking to a former CEO who had briefly been a junior minister and he told me: “I was prepared for being attacked by the opposition, but not being stabbed by my own side.”
6. Chose your battles carefully. Nigel Farage is a busted flush with nothing to lose, yet still has good contacts in the right leaning press, it a past master at delivering quotable quote and has little to do all day apart from give interviews;
7. There’s also an issue with the BBC, which is so scared of criticism that once it was clear it had got the story wrong, it felt duty bound to self-flagellate on all platforms, even though it emerged it was misled. Simon Jack has been recused from the story, and this incident may have caused his reputation and career significant damage.
Martin Lewis of Moneysavingexpert Tweeted (or should I say “Xed”) this morning: “Let's hope the standards of accountability set today for bank C level staff (which post 2007 bailouts must be seen as a public service as much as private companies) continues for all scandals going forward.”
*There is some doubt over how the BBC confirmed the story - whether they went to the communications team or to Dame Alison directly. In its letter to Farage the BBC said it "went back to the source to check they were happy for us to publish the information". If she took the call and didn't check with Coutts or the comms team before confirming, then the former NatWest CEO only has herself to blame.