Sunday, June 20, 2010

BP's Tony Hayward Yachts While the Gulf Churns

The CEO of British Petroleum, Tony Hayward, spent some time racing his yacht off the Isle of Wight yesterday.  To put it mildly, this has not gone over well in the United States.  Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace called the mini-vacation, "rubbing salt in the wounds" of Gulf Coast residents.  Larose, Louisiana resident Bobby Pitre told the Associated Press,

Man, that ain't right. None of us can even go out fishing, and he's at the yacht races. I wish we could get a day off from the oil, too.
Taking the sentiment further, Florida resident Raymond Caniveri is quoted by the BBC saying Hayward does not "have the right to have free time at all" during the oil gusher.

I certainly understand why people are mad.  There is no relief in sight for those who live near or depend on the Gulf for a living.  Watching the person in charge take a break rather publicly feels kind of like your surgeon going out to lunch while you're on the operating table.  It seems like she should have her mind on the situation at hand.  But is it really that simple?

Let's start with a reality check.  Tony Hayward is not, himself, trying to plug the oil well.  His company is, and we'd like to think they have their best people working on it.  Tony Hayward is not one of those people.  It's not his job to be one of those people.  And given that this isn't his area of expertise, I personally do not want him to try.  I do want him to make sure that the best and the brightest are working on it and have everything they need to do it successfully.

For the second reality check, let's go back to that example of a surgeon.  It is certainly the case that if I'm having, say, an appendectomy, I expect my doctor to stay in the room the whole time.  But what if I'm having 18 hour brain surgery?  In that case, I actually don't want her in the OR continuously -- she's going to be tired and hungry and need to go to the bathroom, among other things, and she will start making mistakes.  In these situations, my expectation (as well as standard practice) is that the first surgeon hands off to a second one and goes for a break.  This is true for all kinds of prolonged critical situations, from search and rescue to firefighting to transatlantic pilots.  No one can be on the job continuously, and we don't want them to be.

So what did Tony Hayward do wrong?  White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had it at least partially right when he said this was "part of a long line of PR gaffes and mistakes" by Hayward and BP.  While it may be true that my brain surgeon can and should get a break during my surgery, she doesn't need to walk past my family in the waiting room saying, "Well, that's about all I can take for one day.  I'm off to the French Riviera.  Have fun!!"  They want her to act like she cares, and that is all that Gulf residents are asking of Tony Hayward.

In addition, when my surgeon goes to get a nap and some lunch, she's leaving someone else in charge.  While there probably was someone else in charge of operations relating to the oil catastrophe yesterday, no one seems to know who it was.  This left the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the whole company was taking the day off.  This, too, was bad public relations and could easily have been avoided.

Does Mr. Hayward deserve to have any time off?  I think he does.  He's not going to be very helpful if he's a complete wreck.  If he had spent yesterday lying in a hammock on his back porch, most likely no one would have noticed.  Someone else could have briefed the press, and if anyone asked he would have been unavailable.  Instead, he chose to blow a giant raspberry at the people of the southeastern United States.  That was probably not the best choice.


Edwin Aoki said...

I am very pleased to have read this. I'm taking a bit of a break myself right now, in the UK of all places, where the US reaction to Mr. Hayward's day off was the lead story on the news. I completely agree that this was another PR misstep by a company whose PR seems to be going as poorly as the oil leak itself (and who really should have the resources to do better). I also agree that if Mr. Hayward had decided to spend his father's day with his family somewhere other than on the water off the Isle of Wight, he probably would have escaped the majority of the scrutiny.

But I think there's something else to this story: a deep, psychological desire to put a name and a face to this tragedy. Mr. Hayward has, for better or worse, become the face of BP, and BP has become the face of everything that's wrong with the way we extract and consume energy in the US. People don't want to conserve and they can't or don't want to make the sacrifices necessary to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. But we demand abundant energy at low cost with minimal environmental impact, and until events like the Deepwater Horizon incident, we are happy to live in the illusion that this is possible, realistic, and sustainable. I believe Tony Hayward is reviled because he is a thorn in our side; a reminder that this isn't true. As much as we dislike him, as much as we despise BP, we want - we demand - that Mr. Hayward and his company "make things right" in the Gulf, so that we can go back to the way it was before. In essence, we want our lives back, just as Mr. Hayward was quoted as saying he did. When the American people talk about getting their lives back, it's not just about restoring commercial fishing and tourism and repaying the workers for their lost wages and health concerns; it's about getting back to a time when we can be ignorant of energy policy, occasionally joining the debate for or against Big Oil or the environmental agencies when something happens.

To Mr. Hayward, plugging the oil leak is part of his job; it's not his purpose in life. I think we all agree that it's ok to take a day off from a job once in a while. To the people of the Gulf Coast, and to the people who want a return to life before the spill, stopping the leak is far more than just a job. If BP's PR department could have understood that, one would hope that they would have made better decisions.

As for Mr. Hayward, we know that he's ceded day-to-day operational responsibility for the oil spill to someone else; let's hope that that person has not only the technical skills to plug the leak, but also the very important social skills that will allow him to understand and start to heal the very real wounds that the people of the Gulf Coast have felt.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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