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Black Letter Communications Blog

Expert pr advice for the legal sector

Nigel Farage and NatWest: What does this saga teach us?

Loose lips sink ships may have been a wartime slogan, but in recent weeks banks NatWest and Coutts have demonstrated that loose lips can sink both careers and reputations.

We have seen this story play out slowly and somewhat painfully in the media, with NatWest and Coutts slowly coming to the realisation that they seriously misjudged the situation, the government’s reaction and the reaction of the general public.

What may have started as a very run of the mill charity dinner one evening in early July, has turned into a furore that may yet see the resignation of the entire board of one of the country’s biggest banks. So, what happened and what are the PR lessons learned?

Building relationships

As legal PR’s we deal with the media on a daily basis. We know the value of forging relationships, building trust and getting to know the journalists who are important for our clients.

As in all aspects of life, whether that be our professional lives, our social lives, or our families, relationships are key. Building trust is a foundation, and knowing where the boundaries of each of those relationships lies, a cornerstone.

Unfortunately, this seems to have slipped NatWest chief executive Alison Rose’s mind that day in July when she sat next to Simon Jack, the BBC’s business editor, at a dinner at The Langham. Over that conversation, amid questions over whether Mr Farage’s account had been closed due to his political views, she chose to reveal to Simon Jack that the banking group had decided to close the account because Mr Farage no longer had enough money to meet the minimum threshold set by Coutts.

Not only did this later turn out not be true, it was a gross breach of client confidentiality. What then followed was a series of ill-judged moves. Namely, the board misreading the situation and choosing to back the Chief Executive without speaking to their largest shareholder, the government.

In a free and fair society, access to a basic bank account is a right and while access to a bank account at Coutts, with a minimum threshold of £1m, is not, the possibility that bank accounts can be closed on the basis of someone’s beliefs or opinions has set the hares running.

Unfortunately, for NatWest and Coutts, despite the resignations of Alison Rose and Coutts CEO Peter Flavel, more heads are likely to roll. Over the weekend, Nigel Farage set up a website for people who have had their bank accounts closed with no satisfactory explanation as to why, and the divisive politician, now a self-styled consumer champion, is calling for the resignation of the entire NatWest board – something that seems increasingly likely to happen.

Honesty is the best policy

As we always stress to clients, honesty is the best policy. The truth will usually come out so take a clear, honest line from the outset in your communications. Be aware of who you’re speaking to.

Will this impact off the record conversations going forward? Only time will tell. Such conversations are as old as journalism itself and with journalists you have taken the time to build a relationships with, they are valuable, helping to provide context, background and insight that goes beyond the corporate line. However, even when ‘off the record’ only divulge what you would be happy to see in print and bear in mind that ‘off the record’ should never be a by-word for breaching client confidentiality.

Alison Rose, as successful as she may have been at the helm of NatWest, showed a grave error of judgement that evening and has paid for it with her career -her tenure now synonymous with Nigel Farage and an ill-fated dinner conversation.

taped over mouth