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Media lessons learned the hard way: the CEO and a tale of woe

David Gaffney,

Senior Partner


Media lessons learned the hard way: the CEO and a tale of woe

Despite having apparently come to enjoy the media limelight during her time as chief executive of NatWest, Dame Alison Rose is unlikely to have derived much pleasure from her return to the headlines over the last few days.

Rose, you will recall, was forced to resign in July from the bank formerly known as RBS after it transpired she was the source of a BBC story about the financial affairs of former Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Last week, details of her pay package emerged, raising several questions and even more eyebrows.

The genesis of the initial story fascinated me as a former bank press officer and current communications consultant. What exactly were the circumstances of the conversation between Rose and Simon Jack, the BBC’s business editor?  Did she disclose the information carelessly or intentionally? Assuming the latter to be true – which has all but been confirmed since – what were her motivations?

I’m not the only one distracted by these questions. During media training workshops we have delivered since the story broke, senior executives who are among Rose’s peers have been equally curious about the downfall of one of the FTSE’s most high-profile leaders.

Rose wouldn’t be the first executive to drop their guard in the company of a journalist and unintentionally drop a little golden nugget of news into their lap. But Jack checked subsequently that she was happy for him to run the story and her confirmation rules out any sense that this was an accidental slip. So, we know the ‘how’, but what about the ‘why’?

My hunch is that having emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the UK’s most recognisable business leaders, Rose had come to relish her public profile, or at least the access to rarefied company it afforded her. King Charles made her a dame in his first new year honours list and highlights from her LinkedIn feed this summer include meetings with His Majesty, as well as Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak. Senior broadcasters like Jack are also celebrities in their own right. Who wouldn’t feel a sense of satisfaction in keeping that kind of company? Who wouldn’t want to protect that status by offering up the odd scoop?

But pride comes before a fall and Rose need have looked no further than another one of her antecedents for evidence of that. Many commentators blamed hubris for Fred Goodwin’s infamous downfall and he paid not only with his job but with his knighthood.

On the way up through the ranks, successful careers can be defined by intelligence, diligence and the cultivation of mutually beneficial relationships. If those qualities are ultimately rewarded with the top job, it can be hard to resist the trappings of the office and the power it bestows. CEOs often surround themselves with colleagues who are only too eager to massage the boss’s ego in pursuit of their own progress up the corporate ladder. Perhaps Rose spent too much time listening to them and gave not enough attention to dissenting voices in her team.

Traditional media titles may not wield the same power as they once did, but they can still make and break careers. Consequently, some executives are suspicious of journalists and wary of engaging with them. They will cite Dame Alison’s drama as evidence to support their view that media engagement is a high-risk, low-return venture that is best avoided. I disagree and suggest the lesson here is not to eschew the company of journalists, but to understand their rules of engagement, remember what motivates them and don’t become complacent.

If Rose has ambitions of returning to a senior role at some point, the best thing she could do now would be to forfeit her multi-million-pound pay-off. She had better do it quickly, too, before the decision – and the narrative – is taken out of her hands.


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