Former CEO of British Petroleum, Tony Hayward, is in more hot water today after claiming that he's been "demonized" by American coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Hayward, who vacates his position with a guaranteed annual pension of £600,000 (roughly $900,000), and who was photographed onboard a company yacht shortly after returning to England, is reported by the BBC today as saying, "I became the public face [of the disaster] and was demonised and vilified. Whether it is fair or unfair is not the point."
But the fairness of the account is very much the point, I think. Especially as "the public face" of the disaster is a CEO aboard a company yacht when his corporation is responsible for—and at the time was unable to contain—the worst ecological catastrophe in U.S. history.
Mr. Hayward is probably best known Stateside for complaining, just a few days after arriving at the oil spill, that he wanted his life back. Clueless as to how poorly such a statement would read to a nation heartsick that an environmental catastrophe was unfolding and unraveling by the hour, BP then told the many thousands of people affected by the disaster that they were, in the eyes of BP honchos, "small people." Oil was spilling into both the Gulf and "the nation's psyche," Peter Goodman observed in the New York Times. Yet with BP's message, it was as if we'd tumbled into a Swift novel and were suddenly navigating Gulliver's Travels. It all felt weirdly eighteenth century. The British corporation came across as astonishingly feckless and tone-deaf, incompetent and uncaring.
"As oil burst from a hole in the seabed into our homes and offices via television screens," Goodman continued, "here was palpable evidence of that disarray and—worse—the fecklessness of the countermeasures deployed to contain it." “It was almost a kind of bleeding that you couldn’t stop,” noted Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at UCLA, in Goodman's article. "You had this oozing out of this valuable stuff and people’s livelihoods getting harmed, and it was 'try this,' and 'try that,' and for weeks "nothing seemed to stop the flow."
With his very generous annual compensation, Mr. Hayward will surely have something like his life back very soon, if his days on yachts haven't already resumed. Meanwhile, the many "small people" in the Gulf whose livelihoods have been completely destroyed by the Deepwater Horizon spill will surely wonder, in amazement, how he couldn't imagine that his many blunders weren't at least partly responsible for American anger at BP.
BP once had a strong image in the States, doubtless helped by its slick multimillion dollar promotional campaigns, but it's taken Mr. Hayward just a few spectacularly inappropriate and idiotic comments to tarnish that corporate image far more than was inevitable, with his and his colleagues' colossal gaffes. Imagine: "Small people"? Given the circumstances, it would be hard to find a more patronizing and offensive phrase. And if you care about your message, BP, don't make a nonnative speaker responsible for a critical press conference.
In his stepping aside from his position as CEO, given the economic stakes for Britain and the social-environmental stakes for the U.S., Mr. Hayward's guaranteed fortune won't strike many Americans as especially bad compensation for his few weeks of hardship in the Gulf. It's a bit hard to feel sorry for him.