Up flashed a picture of a well-known businesswoman.
The room fell silent, faces tensed, heads shook. They all knew who she was. Indeed, she was the reason why we were here.
She was Dame Alison Rose, until recently the CEO of NatWest. Widely regarded as an excellent boss, a fine banker, a superb representative of an industry that has not exactly been covered in glory these past years, Rose went because she said too much.
More specifically, she was perceived as having crossed the line in banking confidentiality by discussing the financial affairs of Nigel Farage, the ex-Ukip leader and client of NatWest’s Coutts subsidiary, at a dinner with Simon Jack, the BBC’s business editor.
Since then, a terrible fear has stalked Britain’s boardrooms — of doing something similar, of dropping your guard and getting caught out. This is why I found myself discussing the media and social media landscape, how journalists behave, and the dos and don’ts, with a well-known international brand.
They don’t want any members of their senior executive team “doing a Rose” and bringing themselves and the company into disrepute.
Demand for media training has never been higher. Firms were scared before. Cancel culture, woke, activism, going viral — they’d all put businesses on red alert.
But Rose has taken it to a new level. What’s shocked them is the idea that someone like Rose can come a cropper, a person for whom they had the highest respect, who appeared to know her business and the dangers backwards.
Those close to Rose maintain she didn’t say very much and she did know what she was doing.
Indeed, that was borne out by the fact that the following day the BBC contacted Rose and asked if it was okay for them to publish what she’d said. The trouble is that’s not how it played out, wasn’t how it was perceived.
Certainly, given the subject matter was Farage, that should have been sufficient to put the bank’s chiefs on heightened alert. Farage is not known for shirking controversy, for not pushing arguments to the limit. Give him an inch and he will take a mile, and that’s precisely what happened in Rose’s case.
The lessons from her downfall and from others is to say as little as possible, to not relax, not to be led into a false sense of security where you think you’re among friends. Journalists, however friendly, are always looking for a story.
The good ones never stop — evenings, weekends, by the pool, and more to the point, in the bar, on holiday, they’re on it.
Everyone, too, is a journalist these days — at least it is best to assume they are.
Gone are the days when a reporter wore a grubby raincoat and brandished a Biro and a notebook. Today, everyone bears a device that can record sound, shoot videos and take pictures. It’s a phone and just because they’re asked to put them away, it doesn’t mean that their watch isn’t whirring, primed to put the un-PC comment or whatever it is that will raise eyebrows and, most importantly, result in clicks and hits, online.
Don’t take alcohol, it’s a relaxant. And it’s when people are relaxed that they say things they may soon regret.
Don’t believe you’re talking only to a like-minded audience. That journalist nodding away and smiling is not your audience — it’s the folk who see what you said in the media, on social media, they’re your audience.
Years ago, the jeweller Gerald Ratner came unstuck when he addressed the Institute of Directors at the Royal Albert Hall. “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, ‘because it’s total crap.’” He went on to declare that one of the sets of earrings was “cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks and Spencer, but I have to say the sandwich will probably last longer than the earrings”.
Of course, no one would expect six glasses on a silver-plated tray for £4.95 to be the highest quality, not even back in 1991.
Neither, though, did they want to feel they were being ripped off. They believed in the Ratners brand as providing good value — Ratner’s remarks told them something different.
When he made his comments, he provoked scarcely a ripple in the packed tiers of seating. No one shouted him down, not one single person walked out in protest.
This was the IoD after all and while they do not behave that way and probably did not approve of his forthrightness, many of them would have shared his sentiment. But one didn’t, and Ratner’s words came to the attention of a tabloid and he was toast — £500 million was wiped off the value of his retail group and he and the chain never recovered.
Ratner always struggled with what he’d done that was wrong, as possibly, does Rose. Somebody thought it was bad and that was enough.
And if Ratner had said the same today, it would have exploded across the internet that very afternoon, not after a newspaper had swung into operation. “Doing a Ratner” has gone down in corporate folklore as to be avoided at all costs.
Life now, however, is a lot more dangerous. Ratner was making a formal address. If that was today, the press office, the communications director, they would have checked it and put a red line through the offending words.
Neither, though, do they have that luxury. All their senior people are fair game, all of them can be snared speaking out of turn. Those speaking and doing are brand ambassadors, those listening are potential reporters and digital posters.
No matter that they’re not so high profile as Gerald Ratner or Alison Rose, if they hold a title that carries seniority they may also be deemed as speaking for the brand — the two are not indistinguishable — and that can prove cataclysmic.
Every executive in the land has been to dinners and amid the candles and wine chatted away to the person sitting next to them.
Many have sat next to identifiable journalists they know —although as I say, no matter, everyone is a journalist now.
Plenty, following Rose’s departure, are making the sign of the cross and giving thanks to God.
The more foresighted ones are taking steps to prevent a recurrence. “Doing a Rose” has joined “doing a Ratner” in the annals of business infamy.