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BP's Toxic Tony: Can't we cap him?

BP's chief executive certainly hasn't won any public relations style points with his handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

June 06, 2010|Chris Ayres

If BP has a spare "containment dome" lying around at its crisis-response headquarters in Houston, I have a suggestion: How about lowering it over the head of the company's British chief executive, Tony "I'd Like My Life Back" Hayward?

It might not do much for the tragedy playing out in the Gulf of Mexico, but it would at least spare the world — including Hayward's cringing compatriots (of which I am one) — another deployment of the surly ex-geologist's anti-charm.

In a perverse way, of course, you almost have to respect the achievement of the BP chief since the fatal explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform six weeks ago. He has taken the most heart-wrenchingly awful ecological catastrophe in American history and, through his own personal endeavors, somehow managed to make it worse — while at the same time setting back Anglo-American relations about 234 years.

And to think we Brits acted all huffy and offended when President Obama shipped that bronze bust of Winston Churchill back to London, after it had taken pride of place in the Oval Office under George W. Bush. I somehow doubt there'll be any more grumbling about that national indignity. Besides, if the bust were still there, the president might by now have been tempted to do to it what Ozzy Osbourne once did to the Alamo.

I realize that for those of a more forgiving disposition, it must feel as though Hayward has already taken enough punishment — after all, it can't be easy being the Most Hated Man in the Western Hemisphere (and at the same time presumably the Most Admired Man in whichever hemisphere is currently home to Osama bin Laden, whose people can't even get a pair of underpants to explode these days). And yet even the most sensitive of souls must admit that the BP chief's ineptitude in the arena of public relations has been almost as offensive as his company's willingness to drill into a pressurized oilfield a mile under the ocean without any Plan B should its amusingly named "blowout preventer" do the very opposite of what its name suggests.

Take, for example, the Mariah Carey-grade narcissism of Hayward's statement last week that he wanted the leaking oil well to be capped more than anyone, because, y'know, he's long overdue some me-time — which gave the impression that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a bit like an overly clingy girlfriend with whom he'd just gone through a tediously emotional breakup.

Even more astonishing was that this was supposed to be Hayward's apology to the very country whose beaches, wetlands, ocean and fishing industry his company is in the process of trashing. Which probably makes him the first leader of a multinational corporation in modern history to issue an apology, and then immediately have to apologize for the apology. Added to that, the apology for the apology was made on BP's Facebook page — presumably because Hayward hasn't yet realized that BP was unfriended by America about 47 days ago.

Perhaps it's inevitable that any human being, no matter how skilled in communicating with the public, is going to err when faced with a calamity of the scale of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But Hayward hasn't made just one or two off-key statements. Oh no. Like the oil spill itself, the torrent of Hayward's anti-charm has been a slow-motion disaster, at first seeming almost containable, but then accumulating hour after hour, day after day, week after week, until Toxic Tony became a black stain on the Gulf Coast in his own right. If only there were a berm that could keep him out at sea, away from the population.

"This is America — come on. We're going to have lots of illegitimate claims," he sneered to one British journalist, as if the deaths of 11 oil rig workers and the injuries of 17 others in a more reasonable country would simply be considered an acceptable cost of doing business. Then came the terrifying logic of: "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." This set the bar for future Haywardisms pretty high, but the BP chief hurdled it nevertheless with his assessment that "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest."

All of which raises the question: Why on Earth does Hayward still have an executive suite with his name on it at BP? If you listen to the cynics in London and on Wall Street, it's because Hayward is already damaged property, so he might as well be kept in place until the leak is plugged, when he can be replaced with someone whose face doesn't bring to mind images of tar-filled marshes and out-of-work shrimpers. Perhaps there's some sense to this, from management's perspective. But the longer they keep Toxic Tony, the less chance there'll be of his successor having any kind of company left to run.

Chris Ayres is the author of three books, including "Death by Leisure: A Cautionary Tale," and writes from Los Angeles for The Times and the Sunday Times of London.

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