Last week. the BBC invited me on its World Have Your Say panel discussion show to debate the question: "Should we feel sorry for Tony Hayward?" I argued that the CEO, who's stepping away from day-to-day management of the cleanup, did not deserve public sympathy. Considering his latest public relations gaffe over the weekend -- showing up at a yacht race in the U.K. -- I'm even more sure of that position. BP, which now says the spill could be gushing as much as 100,000 barrels per day of crude in a worst-case scenario, argued that he needed a day off. Oh brother.
Hayward's sympathizers argue that he's misunderstood. For instance, his "I want my life back" comment was really a stab at British self-deprecating humor, which Americans don't always get, according to one of my fellow panelists, Joanna Biddolph, a crisis-communications expert.
BP's public relations effort has been hurt because Hayward is "not a natural media performer" and because his boss, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, is a Swede whose command of English is far from perfect, Biddolph argued. Indeed, BP is spending lots of time defending Hayward, insisting yesterday that he's not resigning.
Poorly Treated in Congress?
The pro-Hayward viewpoint -- ludicrous as it may sound -- is backed by some in the European press who are painting the deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and the worst oil spill in U.S. history in us-versus-them terms. People in Europe are worried about the fall in BP's share price and its decision to suspend its dividend to fund the $20 billion escrow account to pay for the clean-up costs.
Some journalists were shocked by how badly Hayward was beaten up last week by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. A story in the tabloid Daily Mail said Hayward sat "stony-faced through a Congressional hearing so savage it was more like ancient Rome than Capitol Hill." The story also argued that BP's decision would affect pretty much every person in Britain who invests in stocks since the oil company's shares are so widely held.
Others, such as the Irish Times, tried to place the story in an anthropological context, saying, "English accents sound arrogant to Americans -- even Hayward's humble drawl, which betrays his origins as the eldest of seven children from Slough."
Reverence for Things British
That's ridiculous. Americans love the Geico gecko. We're in awe of British accents and think that anyone who has one is bound to be clever. American women have told me that they find men with accents -- regardless of where they are from -- intriguing. Consider all the British movie stars that have made it big in Hollywood. Michigan-born Madonna loves the U.K. so much she calls it home.
As for Slough, the reference there is a bit odd as well. The town of 130,000 is west of London and home to the European headquarters of Amazon.com (AMZN), Research in Motion (RIM) and Stanley Black & Decker (SWK). "Those of us who live and work here rather like it," says Trevor Lambert, head of communications and marketing for the Slough Borough Council, in an email to DailyFinance.
Equally lame is the notion that BP's new man in charge of the clean-up efforts, Robert Dudley, will do a good job because he's an American who grew up on the Gulf Coast. Dudley also has lived overseas for years, including Russia until he was forced to flee following a dispute with the authorities there. While his familiarity with different cultures certainly helps, there's no guarantee that he'll be any more successful than Hayward.
"Lost in Translation"
In the end, the disaster in the Gulf isn't about gaffes or dividends or cultural anthropology. It's about oil -- a whole hell of a lot of it -- gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. It's destroying the environment in unimaginable ways and ruining the lives of millions of people. At least some members of the foreign press seem to get that point.
"Something has got lost in translation across the Atlantic," writes Alex Spillius of the Daily Telegraph. "But until prominent British voices started complaining about supposed anti-British rhetoric sweeping from coast to coast, there wasn't any. The nationality of the oil company behind the worst environmental catastrophe suffered by the United States simply had not been an issue."
Wherever BP is headquartered or the citizenship of whoever is running the cleanup doesn't matter. Tony Hayward has proven unable to get the situation under control, and making the change makes sense. Let's just hope the improvement in results is dramatic.