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Oil spill sympathies

When BP’s CEO Tony Hayward took a beating before Congress last week I felt sorry for him. Hour after hour he sat there, looking miserable as congressmen lined up to put the boot in. After three hours of watching the nearest thing we have to a modern day lynching, I was prepared to shout “Enough.” …


When BP’s CEO Tony Hayward took a beating before Congress last week I felt sorry for him. Hour after hour he sat there, looking miserable as congressmen lined up to put the boot in. After three hours of watching the nearest thing we have to a modern day lynching, I was prepared to shout “Enough.”

And so on Friday’s “Quest Means Business” I decided to challenge two of the Congressmen who took Hayward to task, and I started to understand.

They are politicians, and, as Congressman Sullivan admitted, they face an angry electorate who wants to know what happened and who is to blame. Both men reminded me that there were thousands of pages of evidence allegedly showing BP’s culture of cutting costs over safety.

Congressman Sullivan said Mr. Hayward, “is the CEO of a major corporation. He should have some grasp of this….he did answer a lot of questions with, ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I can’t recall.’ I mean, you know, this is a huge disaster, he should have, at that point, looked at the data and been able to answer those questions better.”

This was reinforced by Congressmen Welch who told me, “Hayward just has not been successful in giving people confidence.”

Perhaps they have a point. By now simply saying you are sorry or devastated isn’t enough. And with all the PR resources at BP’s disposal surely they could have constructed something better than hour after hour of “I don’t know” or “wait and see.” People want answers and Mr. Hayward surely could have done a better job of giving them.

Whatever lingering sympathy I had, evaporated after the weekend news of Mr. Hayward attending a ritzy yachting event in England where a boat of his was competing. It was a gift to BP’s critics, “The yacht should have been picking up oil off the gulf coast not racing in England. Hayward’s got his life back after all, what about ours,” and so on.

Even BP’s PR response that Mr. Hayward was spending a few hours with his family and surely we didn’t begrudge him that, left many gasping for reason.

No — people don’t begrudge him a few hours with his family; but some are open-mouthed at his choice of leisure activity. Some feel it seems inappropriate and insensitive to be on the water enjoying himself while his company continues to pollute waters in the Gulf of Mexico, making them unfit for any form of boating activity other than spraying dispersants and booming for oil.

Like it or not, perception becomes reality and the news of a CEO engaged in such luxury activity, days after his Chairman misspoke about “the small people” all ends up sounding like “let them eat cake.”

I take no sides in the rights and wrongs over what BP did or did not do to cause the Deepwater horizon oil spill. Mr. Hayward is right — that will be up to the various inquiries and so far they have yet to come up with a conclusive answer. But on the PR front lots of people do wonder how many more missteps BP can make before someone gets a grip.

BP has been very clear — the legitimate victims of this oil spill will be compensated and the cleanup will be total and complete. But unfortunately the public’s perception about the way this has been handled in both word and deed, may very well last much longer and do more damage, which cannot be put right by the spending of cash.

Tune in to Richard Quest each weekday at 9 pm Cairo (9 pm Kuwait, 9 pm Riyadh, 10 pm Dubai) on Quest Means Business. For more information go to www.cnn.com/qmb.

 

 

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