Brand Purpose Marketing

5 PR lessons to emerge from Farage v Coutts debacle


By Gordon Young, Editor-in-Chief

July 20, 2023 | 7 min read

Gordon Young, editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Drum, looks at the PR fallout from elite bank Coutts & Co's closing of politician Nigel Farage's account


In terms of corporate PR crashes, few have been as spectacular as Coutts & Co. And of course, the ultimate irony is that it was a committee dedicated to reputational risk, that seemed to fly the 331-year-old brand into the mountain.

Its recommendation to close accounts Nigel Farage – one of the UK’s most divisive politicians – has led to a media storm.

Now the PR wreckage has yet to yield the black box flight recorder. So we do not know for sure what the final conversations were on the flight deck before the bank-of-choice to the Royal Family nose-dived onto the front pages.

But many are already blaming pilot error. And Indeed Dame Alison Rose, CEO of NatWest Group which owns Coutts has now apologized to Farage. So what if anything can brands take away from this frightful saga?

Purpose marketing is not risk-free. For the last few years, brands have flown rainbow flags, talked about inclusivity and campaigned for all manner of social causes. And up until recently, these positions were not controversial. However today, with more polarised politics, challenge is becoming increasingly likely.

Let’s hope brands continue to support these causes, but they should be aware there is now greater risk and the need to prepare for potential flak. Bud, is another company that saw a market share collapse after its consumers reacted unexpectedly badly to a promotion with trans-influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

Stick to your knitting: One way of mitigating risk is to make sure any cause your support is directly related to your product. Coutts, despatched Farage because - amongst other things - they allegedly did not like his views on Brexit, which they felt was not aligned with their inclusive agenda. Now there is a lot to be said for accepting you are as defined by those you don’t want as customers, as opposed to those you do.

But a more logical position for Coutts would be to admit it was not interested in engaging the poor. However, by getting into the politics of Brexit, it was stepping outside its core remit; which is to provide stable, discreet banking for the seriously wealthy.

Honesty is the best policy: Coutts initially suggested that it was closing Farage’s account because he no longer met its financial criteria; which are investments of at least £1m, or savings of at least £3m. But that initial claim was quickly debunked when Farage received a dossier from the bank which was the result of a subject access request. The 40-page document appeared to confirm Farage’s exit - should I say Farxit - was motivated by his political views... or it's one huge coincidence...

The result has been front-page headings, government inquiries and shareholder input questioning the bank’s integrity.

Get professional comms advice: It has been suggested that Dame Alison Rose, CEO of NatWest Bank, the Coutts parent company, is herself the source of the leak about Farage’s finances to the BBC. Reports say she sat next to the BBC business editor at a function the day before he broke the story about Farage not having enough money to be a Coutts customer. If true, this is a disaster for her, and one that fuels the PR storm. The issue would not have occurred if she had acted on advice from a comms team.

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Get some devil’s advocates on your risk assessment team. It appears Coutts’ reputation has been damaged by its reputations committee. According to the Farage dossier, it concluded having him as a client was a professional risk it was not prepared to take. It seems odd, the reputational risk of exiting him was not seen as even more dangerous. They even acknowledged he was perfectly placed to kick up a public stink. There are only two plausible reasons for this - there was simply too much consensus on the committee that blinded them to the real danger (diverse companies need diverse opinions too), and also they did not foresee their dossier being made public.

It has to be said that Farage getting his hands on this document adds an ironic twist. His gaining access to it was dependent on a subject access request. This is a device that allows people to see any information organizations hold on them, and was given added strength thanks to GDPR, a piece of EU legislation. So the arch-Brexiteer has Europe to thank for gaining access to the dossier in the first place.

One final footnote, lawyers are surprised at how diligent NatWest was in responding to the subject access request. In theory, it could have kicked this into the long grass. All credit to it for the fact it did not. It is an early sign of how they can rebuild trust. Just not with Nigel.

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