BP CEO Tony Hayward Isn't Winning 'Hearts and Minds'

BP's (BP) CEO Tony Hayward is the type of executive who makes his public relations staff grab a fistful of antacid tablets (or perhaps a shot of whiskey) every time he opens his mouth. No one ever knows what thoughtless or inappropriate remark he'll make.

Before the sinking of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, Hayward's often blunt and honest commentary was considered an asset. But now that he's regularly hitting the airwaves regarding BP's cleanup efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, his off-the-cuff style is seen as anything but an asset.

A Faux Pas Pileup

Here are some of Hayward's more cringe-worthy quotes:
  • "What the hell did we do to deserve this? (said to fellow executives) (New York Times, April 29)
  • "We are going to defend the beaches. We will fix this." (Wall Street Journal, May 3)
  • "We will only win this if we can win the hearts and minds of the local community. It's a big challenge.''(Financial Times, May 13)
  • "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." (Guardian, May 14)
  • "Yeah, of course I am" (when asked if he sleeps at night) (Forbes, May 18).
Daniel Gross of Slate does a great job of dissecting Hayward's blunders. At one point, he singles out a series of misused metaphors, which include his quote in the Financial Times. Hayward, Gross writes, is "apparently unaware that 'hearts and minds' is a phrase forever identified with the debacle of the Vietnam War."

None of this is completely lost on Hayward, who admits that his job may be in jeopardy. However, he doesn't feel as if his job is under any immediate threat. "I don't at the moment," he told the Guardian. "That of course may change. I will be judged by the nature of the response."

Breaking Basic Rules

So far, that response isn't going over too well. Crisis communications experts say Hayward's communications style has become a detriment to the company, which is already facing lawsuits and is on the hook for billions of dollars in damages.

Michael Cherenson, the head of Success Communications Group of Parsippany, N.J., says Hayward is "breaking some of the basic rules of reputation management" by being arrogant and confrontational. "He is actually doing the opposite of what he should be doing," he says. "He is spending most of his time talking rather than listening. At the end of the day, a reputation is about credibility and expectations. [Hayward] is certainly not meeting the expectations of the public or being credible."

BP is also underestimating how important pictures are in telling the story. "We have not seen Mr. Hayward take off his jacket," says Gene Grabowski, a senior vice president at Levik Strategic Communications. "We have not seen him roll up his sleeves and physically help out in any way. In strategic communications, you must control the pictures."

Company in Need of a "Problem Solver"

Up until the oil spill, Hayward's blunt leadership style was mostly admired and was one of the factors that helped him become CEO. He took over the helm from Lord John Browne, a media-savvy man who was dubbed the "Sun King." Browne's departure from the company, however, was anything but sunny. BP's reputation had been tarnished by a 2005 accident at its refinery in Texas City, Texas, that killed 15 workers and left 170 injured. and again, in 2006, after leaks were found at its pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Browne's career came to an end amid a scandal in which he admitted to lying to a court about his relationship with a gay man. Browne was being charged with misusing company funds in order to support his partner.

When Hayward, who earned his PhD in geology at age 22, took over the reins, the press embraced him for his candor and willingness to speak his mind. Shortly after getting appointed as CEO, Hayward stunned employees by accurately telling them that their operational performance was "terrible." In February, the Guardian gushed that Hayward was a "straight-talking oil explorer, who is said to still enjoy the occasional triathlon." The Times (UK) headlined a May 4 story about him: "Tony Hayward, a beer and burgers boss who can 'think with his heart'." When he was named CEO in 2007, the BBC spoke of his willingness to criticize his own company and what some considered "his disarming smile and informal manner."

Hayward might have been the right man for the job following the turmoil of Browne's tenure. But, as Cherenson notes, the position of BP CEO is changing. "Now, we are looking for a problem solver," Cherenson says. "His role has changed, but he has not changed with it."

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