Farage farrago highlights why comms should be in the room
What is the value of communications?
It is a question that can obsess some comms professionals, as they search for a number that demonstrates their direct impact on the bottom line.
And yet so much of its value cannot be quantified. It is the voice of reason in a crisis. The guiding hand that navigates labyrinthine stakeholders. The advice that brings an external perspective to an internal situation.
It’s why comms should be in the room when big decisions are being made.
Decisions such as ‘de-banking’ (forgive me) a controversial politician, who is never without his soapbox, and who will seize every opportunity to make a point.
Comms should be in the room when big decisions are being made
While Coutts’ Wealth Reputational Risk Committee’s own minutes naively describe the ‘media consequences’ as ‘unknown’ should Farage ‘choose to go public’ – was there ever any doubt? – it likely did not envisage the backlash that greeted such a move.
There was genuine shock that banks could just dump clients without any explanation, which allowed Farage to spin Coutts’ decision as politically motivated, leading other (startled) politicians to criticise the move and prompting new rules to clamp down on ‘unfair bank account closures’.
And the committee could not have predicted that the recently ennobled chief executive of parent bank NatWest, Dame Alison Rose, would be caught up in the maelstrom, just days after her appointment to Rishi Sunak’s new Business Council, when the Daily Telegraph linked her to a BBC story claiming Farage wasn’t quite wealthy enough to bank with Coutts. As timings go, it couldn’t be worse.
To be honest, it was the briefings around Farage’s financial position that really surprised me. While the Brexiteer saw the move as politically motivated, the BBC’s Simon Jack tweeted that ‘people familiar with Coutts’ described it as ‘commercial’, that Farage simply didn’t have enough money in his accounts. Jack’s revelation came hours after he sat beside Rose at a charity dinner.
In more than a decade covering the banking beat for national newspapers, not once did a comms professional offer me any insight into an individual’s banking activities. Client confidentiality precluded such a move, no matter how salacious the story. Banks’ reputations are built on trust and discretion, none more so than Coutts.
Comms professionals in the banking world were stunned by the leak, which Jack later stated came from a ‘trusted and senior source’, who actually approved the story. It took a day before Rose shockingly admitted she was the culprit.
Bizarrely, Coutts seemed to maintain that line until Farage released a 40-page dossier, drawn up for the committee, which proved the decision was more personal than financial. The report included tweets, press cuttings dating back to 2016 and unsubstantiated allegations, and considered factors such as his stance on Brexit, his friendships with Donald Trump and Novak Djokovic and his views on Net Zero.
Did the risk committee convene to discuss de-banking the Royal Family after allegations of racism in the Oprah interview?
The committee, which referred to Farage as a ‘disingenuous grifter’, claimed that its association presented ‘a material and ongoing reputational risk to the bank’. But it also accepted that he had committed no criminal or regulatory misdemeanours, was not a politically exposed person, and was always polite and respectful to Coutts’ staff.
Yet his views, which have likely not changed in the decade he banked with Coutts, and must have passed an initial review process, are now at odds with the bank’s values and stated position as an inclusive organisation. (I also suspect Coutts’ desire to boost its BCorp impact score to 90 when it seeks re-accreditation next year plays a role here.)
It all adds grist to mainstream media’s view that purpose is nonsense and companies are becoming too woke for their own good. It is not certainly helpful to those companies who believe that their remit extends beyond simply generating profit for shareholders.
Corporate purpose is about making difficult decisions. It is about taking actions that may cost money in the short-term with the belief they will bring benefits in the long-term. In truth, this decision doesn’t feel like that. It’s personal. The dossier suggests a committee with a pre-determined agenda, who sought to find evidence to fit the perceived crime. They just didn’t like Farage and what he stands for.
I may fundamentally disagree with Farage, but is it really the role of banks – or indeed any utility provider – to become society’s moral compass? That’s a very slippery slope. As Coutts itself concedes in its dossier, it likely has other clients who share many of his views.
Was comms consulted to ask the simple question: is de-banking Farage worth it?
So where does it draw the line? If a multi-millionaire chief executive of a fossil fuel company sought to open an account, would they be refused? Did the risk committee convene to discuss de-banking the Royal Family after allegations of racism in the Oprah interview, or indeed against the growing backlash regarding the Empire? What about Prince Andrew?
So where was comms during this debacle? Well, Rose has an external team advising on her reputation, an appointment she may want to rethink. Her eventual apology to Farage, with its promise to review Coutts’ processes, has been widely derided. Peter Flavel, Coutts’ chief executive, has yet to comment.
Comms is no longer on the executive committee at NatWest, and I suspect is similarly poorly represented at Coutts. So, there was nobody in the room to challenge the decision, to predict the likely repercussions of such a move and to ask the simple question: is de-banking Farage worth it?
As Farage formally complains to the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Treasury summons bank heads to discuss account closures, the simple answer to that very simple question increasingly looks to be no. As her job hangs in the balance, Dame Alison Rose must certainly think so.