man in suit speaking at a meeting

When Coutts Bank closed Nigel Farage’s bank account, it could hardly have imagined the decision would lead to the loss of its own chief executive and that of parent company Nat West Group, an admittedly temporary £1.1 billion loss in value, and its reputation for probity and professionalism trashed throughout the land.

There are many lessons to be learned from the debacle in terms of free speech, integrity, blindly following a trend and backing your own decisions. But one thing has been demonstrated more clearly than anything else: the importance of taking professional PR advice and using PR practitioners to handle communications around sensitive issues.

Why closing the account showed flawed decision-making

Most people agree that closing the account was a poor decision. Let’s consider first why that was the case from a reputation management perspective.

  • It smacks of wokewashing – we’ll look strong if we hit a hit profile name whose views don’t match our standard. Most companies are keen to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. That is as it should be. But firms see DEI&B as applying to their employees; how do we treat our staff? No one was saying Nigel Farage as a customer was abusive or threatening or demeaning to employees of Coutts.
  • The stated rationale appears to indicate that the bank thought his views were fine when he had lots of money in his account. It was, Coutts said, the financial concern which ‘triggered’ the review. Either you have a rule about fund levels or you don’t.
  • The decision simply draws attention to other customers. Any investigative journalist worth their salt will now be probing “Whose accounts does Coutts continue to hold with even ‘worse’ views just because they have lots of money?”
  • It’s a slippery slope to start judging retail customers. Would Tesco do this? I’m a Christian but I see this as in the same camp as a Christian B&B banning a gay couple from staying in a twin/double room – you don’t judge your customers unless they are doing something illegal, in which case you report them to the police. Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.
  • If you do start evaluating customers according to their rectitude, where does it end? Who’s next and for holding what views (which is how Mr Farage is spinning it)? It’s a fair question. I know several Christians who hold traditional views on marriage and disapprove of abortion. Some have been paranoid for years that ‘the state’ will cut off banking facilities. That’s a big chunk of the population, more when you include other religious groups as well. Humiliating individuals in this way simply plays into the hands of the conspiracy theorists and paranoids.
  • Perhaps most tellingly of all: Farage is on air. Coutts aren’t.

CEO’s off-the-cuff remarks made Nigel Farage affair ten times worse

Now let’s consider the fallout. Alison Rose, chief executive of Nat West Group, had a conversation with the BBC’s business editor Simon Jack which gave a false impression of what happened in the Coutts boardroom. Why was this a bad idea?

  • She was not in possession of the full facts. Several steps removed from the decision, the CEO was commenting from a weak position. As they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
  • The issue was very sensitive and high profile. The risk of getting the story wrong was, therefore, magnified.
  • There did not appear to be an agreed corporate standpoint on the story. Coutts executives would have woken up to find a report they knew to be at best half true plastered over the front pages of every newspaper and the lead on every news website and broadcast.
  • Coutts’ compliance people would have been tearing their hair out that someone from the bank was revealing personal customer information in public without that customer’s knowledge or permission.
  • All the story did was give the complainant another opportunity to demonstrate that he had been badly treated – especially when Nigel Farage was able to reveal the bank’s own documentation. So, what had no doubt been a well-meaning attempt to kill the story achieved the opposite effect.

PR professionals limit reputational damage

Companies have PR professionals for a reason. I do not know what went wrong with the in-house risk management on this occasion, but let’s say it may be have been over-enthusiastic application of the firm’s values. Communications teams should observe and reflect external perspectives – sometimes, they go native.

The reputation manager’s role is to give a cool appraisal of any situation – to be a voice of reason in a raucous world, as someone once described my personal approach to problems.

Many PR teams do encourage their senior executives to foster their own relationships with important journalists – sometimes a quick word from the boss to a senior media influencer is precisely what is needed.

But only once all the facts have been taken into account and the firm is agreed on the line being taken. Alison Rose’s remarks sounded more off-the-cuff than off-the-record.

It’s advice all executives need to be reminded of from time to time. “If in doubt, say nothing and get your PR people to react.”

Now, reputationally, Nat West Group has the worst of all worlds. There will be people who move their accounts or attack them because of the way they have treated Nigel Farage. There will be others who move their accounts out because Nat West has offered him an account. And there will be others who simply think, is this a bank I can trust with my money and to put my best interests at heart?

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