The British BP CEO, Tony Hayward, fast became the most hated man in America when he said he wanted to stop the spill so he could ‘get his life back’. Relatives of the eleven people who died would have liked their lives back too. He later apologized for the remark, but with oil rushing into the Gulf, whinging about wanting more free time was unforgiveable. Interestingly the late night talk show host David Letterman commented that ‘The British accent makes it sound worse’. I think the accent probably conveyed elitism.
And it wasn’t Tony Hayward’s only gaffe. Others included saying that the spill wasn’t going to cause big problems because ‘The gulf is a very big ocean’ and ‘the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.’ (Did he really not foresee the problems or did he think we were idiots?) The bungled attempts to plug the pipe added to the fury and gave rise to this youtube hit.
Lamar McKay, the BP America chief has fared better in the press, but his repeated insistence that BP would pay ‘all legitimate claims’ has irked. No doubt his lawyers insisted on that wording, but why use that qualifier ‘legitimate’ unless you plan to contest claims?
And then there’s the BP Swedish Chairman, Carl Henric Svanberg who said, ‘We care about all the small people’. So the people who have lost their livelihood from this mess are ‘small’? That gaffe seems to have been forgiven though because people recognized that English wasn’t his first language.
Americans are bound to be less lenient with Tony Hayward. Whether it’s true or not, it’s presumed that we all speak the same language and share a common understanding of what constitutes a sincere apology and appropriate response.
In the UK Tony Hayward earnt a reputation of being blunt, down to earth and energetic, qualities that I’d expect to be admired here too. But words without actions destroy trust. As the New York Daily News put it:
When the crisis began, Hayward seemed surefooted. He relocated to a Ramada Inn in Louisiana and publicly took “full responsibility” for the disaster. But then he began minimizing the illness of cleanup workers and the environmental cost of the spill, denied there were any underwater oil plumes and started to look increasingly arrogant.
An article from the (British) Times interprets it thus:
“Ultimately this has been as big a public relations disaster for BP as it has been an environmental catastrophe for the Gulf,” said a well-connected source. “When America was crying out for the cool assurance and go-do-it of Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 they got bumbling Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
I love the analogy, and Americans certainly wanted action, but what’s probably missing from that British description is the charge of arrogance.
When I watch interviews with Tony Hayward, and his demeanour in the video of the congressional hearing below, there are occasions when he strikes me as lacking in humility. I also wonder if what might be interpreted as an embarrassed smile sometimes in the UK could be interpreted as a smirk in the US. Seriousity is an American behaviour and an appropriate behaviour for a congressional hearing on a grave issue. But I don’t think we ‘do’ seriousity in the UK. I’d be interested to know how other folks interpret it.
American impressions of elitism are being confirmed as news outlets report that Tony Hayward is at the Isle of Wight today watching his 52-foot yacht “Bob” participate in the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race.
“He’s spending a few hours with his family at a weekend. I’m sure that everyone would understand that,” said Robert Wine, a BP company spokesperson.
Ha! I think not!