In a speech at the Cambridge Union Society on Wednesday night, Former CEO of British Petroleum (BP) Tony Hayward criticized “alarmist media reporting” and “election-year politics” for having exacerbated the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, off the southern coast of the United States.
Speaking before a packed audience, Hayward argued that BP faced a “war on multiple fronts”, including hostility from a “furious public” and a “strident media”, which made the crisis appear much worse than it was.
“BP bashing became all the rage. It all became rather personal,” he said.
“We were unprepared for the protracted barrage of hostility.”
According to Hayward, the damage to the Gulf of Mexico has turned out to be much less than it was feared and reported in the press. At one point he said, “All of the oil is now gone.”
When pressed by a student to explain his assertion that the oil had disappeared, Hayward launched into a technical discussion about the abundance of bacteria in the Gulf of Mexcio, which combined with chemical dispersants, had caused the oil to break up very quickly.
Hayward admitted the crisis was a “public relations disaster for BP”, adding that “it will take years for BP to gain public trust in the United States.” When asked about the role that the BP’s contractors had played, Hayward was careful to distinguish between “blame” and “responsibility”.
He highlighted that BP had taken responsibility for the damage, and had invested billions of dollars in clean-up and compensation costs.
Hayward also spoke about his personal role in the crisis, particularly regarding the coverage he has received in the United States. According to him, he became a “target of universal hate” and “the most hated man in America.”
However, Hayward appears to have brushed off the criticism, saying “Life doesn’t always work out the way you planned it.”
He also recounted the story of a friend who told him, “If you had studied history instead of geology, you would have known that medieval monarchs send out their prize fighters.”
Hayward announced his resignation from the position of CEO on July 27th. Speaking about the decision, he explained, “Because I have become so much the figure of hate and vilification in the US, it would have been impossible for me to continue.”
Much of Hayward’s talk was devoted to the lessons that could be derived from the crisis. In particular, he talked about the importance of risk management, calling the oil spill “the ultimate low probability, high impact event” that could be described as a “black swan” event.
He stressed that it was important for organizations to understand the risks that were present and know how to manage them.
Speaking about his own learning, Hayward added, “The biggest lesson I learned was how to manage expectations.”
The BP oil spill has been described as the largest ever spilling of oil in marine waters. In the 87 days between the explosion of the oil rig on April 20th and the capping of the oil well on July 15th, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil had been spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.