New BP CEO Critiques Oil Spill Coverage

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BP’s gaffe-prone former CEO Tony Hayward was recently shown the door, but the oil company’s new head is picking up where his predecessor left off.

Bob Dudley, who succeeded Hayward on Oct. 1, went on the offensive against BP’s critics in an address delivered to a British lobbying organization. Even as he acknowledged the human toll of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Dudley criticized media coverage during the event, complaining at one point that “it frequently felt as if we were the only story on the news, 24/7.” He went on to criticize “a rush to judgment” by observers and “some in our industry.”

“I watched graphic projections of oil swirling around the gulf, around Florida, across and around Bermuda to England - these appeared authoritative and inevitable,” he said in his prepared remarks. “The public fear was everywhere.”

Dudley’s insistence on playing the victim suggests that he failed to learn many of the lessons of his predecessor. Hayward was criticized for complaining that he’d like his life back as 11 oil rig workers lay dead and thousands on the Gulf feared for their livelihood. For Dudley to now complain months after the fact about a few inaccurate computer simulations smacks of the same victim complex that helped contribute to Hayward’s ouster.

To be fair, BP certainly deserves a lot of credit for their post-spill response, including the $20 billion compensation fund they set up in June, of which nearly half a billion has been paid out.  And this week they agreed to provide $20 million for enhanced seafood inspection and marketing efforts aimed at rehabilitating the Gulf Coast in the wake of the disaster. Dudley, meanwhile, has promised a new culture of safety at BP under his watch (though those could certainly end up being hollow promises), and acknowledged a need to “earn back the trust” of various parties, from customers to governments to shareholders.

Even as it opens its wallet, the company continues to be plagued by PR missteps. In addition to Dudley’s comments, Hayward’s early insistence that rig owner Transocean Ltd. was at fault for the spill fed the perception that BP was seeking to duck responsibility. This earned the company a comparison to Exxon, whose response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill - in which an oil tanker ran aground off the coast of Alaska, spilling millions of gallons of oil and causing widespread destruction to local wildlife - made them “the archetype of how not to behave following a business crisis” according to the New York Times. In the wake of that spill,  the company accused ship captain Joseph Hazelwood of being drunk and criticized Alaska for disallowing the use of chemical dispersants.

Of course, Exxon recovered from the crisis, and is now the largest publicly-traded oil company in the world. BP, whose stock has yet to fully recover in the wake of the disaster, could see similar success in the future. Still, it’s worth noting that for all of ExxonMobil’s strength as a company, the Exxon name is still irreparably tarnished by the Exxon Valdez disaster. If Dudley wants to steer BP beyond the crisis and rehabilitate its image, he’d do well to stop playing the blame game and move on.

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