Sunday, June 27, 2010

The PR Geniuses at BP

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You know, British Petroleum probably thought it had made a pretty good choice when it picked Tony Hayward to be its CEO.

He's young, he's good-looking, he's got great hair, and he's got that charming British accent. The power of this last trait is not to be underestimated, as I discovered in college when a classmate from Great Britain was explaining why he hadn't done his assignment for that day. "You can tell me anything you want," the female teaching assistant cooed, "as long as you do it in that accent."

I was not, it should be noted, well pleased by this. But it did teach me an important truth of life: You can get away with almost anything if you make it sound like you're doing it on "Masterpiece Theatre."

The operative word there being "almost." In the aftermath of the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf, Hayward, accent notwithstanding, has apparently discovered a true genius for ticking people off.

First he tried to downplay the potential effects of the spill, saying the effect of millions of gallons of oil spewing into the ocean would be "very very, modest" and that the spill itself would be "tiny."

Then Hayward exhibited the kind of sensitivity one would normally associate with decapitated French royalty when he told an interviewer, on-camera, "There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back." Gulf residents were quick to point out that since there are a few million people along the coast who could say the same thing, to say nothing of 11 workers killed by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, their sympathy for Hayward's inconvenience was, shall we say, somewhat muted.

Things went from bad to worse when BP Chairman Carl-Henrik Svanberg tried to step in to reassure people and managed only to step into an even deeper hole. "We care about the small people," Svanberg said after a four-hour meeting at the White House with President Obama. "I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are really companies that don't care, but that is not the case in BP, we care about the small people."

Now, I'll be fair here and note that Svanberg is a Swede and English is clearly not his first language. So he probably didn't really mean to imply that the people of the Gulf coast were hobbits. Still, when you're trying to manage a disaster of biblical proportions, it might be a good idea to have someone in front of the cameras who knows the language.

Fortunately BP, alone and embattled, managed to find a defender, a white knight who rode to the rescue of their besieged reputation. Who was this brave paladin, this defender of poor and downtrodden BP? It should surprise no one to learn that it was a Texas Republican.

"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," Rep. Joe Barton said during congressional hearings on the spill. "I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown." Barton actually apologized for the White House being so mean to poor BP.

That rumbling you heard immediately afterwards was the sound of a thousand Democratic political strategists dancing for joy. Horrified fellow Republicans immediately disavowed Barton, even threatening to strip him of his seniority on the Energy and Commerce Committee. It's OK, you see, to be a harlot for the oil industry, but it's a PR problem to be such a shameless one.

Barton immediately began his own familiar song and dance.

First, it was the old "I didn't really say that" defense: "If anything I have said this morning has been misconstrued to an opposite effect," Barton said, "I want to apologize for that misconstruction." Then the "well, I did say it but I'm sorry" sidestep: "I apologize for using the term 'shakedown' with regard to yesterday's actions at the White House ... and I retract my apology to BP." Now all that's left is to apologize to the English language for atrocities like "misconstrued to an opposite effect" and "tragedy of the first proportion."

So in the end, Barton's apologized, Hayward's been pulled off of "day-to-day" management of the spill by BP, and Svanberg is probably still asking everyone (in Swedish) "What? What did I say?" And the oil continues to flow.

Sigh. Even I can't find anything to be amused about in that.


bondwooley said...

As Obama tackles the Gulf crisis, he's told America that if we can win WWII and put a man on the moon, we can solve our dependency on fossil fuels.

But there's a missing piece: the soldiers in WWII had the Pentagon and Neil Armstrong had NASA. What's the man on the street supposed to do to solve the fossil fuel problem? Is it time for an organized, funded effort?

The following link is to a satirical video, but it underscores this issue in real terms.

Link: You're Soaking In It

Anonymous said...

There seems to be some debate on whether whether the Swedish idiom Carl-Henrik Svanberg was likely thinking of was innocent, patronizing, or insulting.

Charlieopera said...

I’m sure there are some good, decent people working for BP, but you won’t find them in upper management positions (unless they find their conscience(s) and become whistle blowers). As for Joe Barton and the GOP ... so long as they permit that pin cushion for big oil to remain in their party (never mind in the powerful seat he chairs), they (the entire GOP) should be rebuked across the board ... Christ, even I can understand voting Democrat after Joe Barton’s apology to BP (and I think the Dems are every bit as useless as the GOP ... just not quite as “shameless” about their selling out).