On April 20, 2010, the oil rigger Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. After the explosion killed or injured 28 workers and released 4.9 million barrels of crude oil, the gushing wellhead was finally capped. British Petroleum (BP), the multi-billion dollar oil and gas company, was indisputably responsible.
Instead of expressing true remorse and compassion for the disaster, then CEO Tony Hayward committed a series of cultural gaffes that enraged U.S. citizens and lawmakers. For instance, well before the Gulf crisis was resolved, Hayward proclaimed that he “wanted his life back.” Then, as efforts to plug the leak continued feverishly in the U.S., he casually took in a sailing race with his son off the Isle of Wight in the UK.
Hayward’s American Disconnect
This behaviour was consistent with Hayward’s work/life balance philosophy. He once said publicly that he didn’t work weekends and took all of his holidays no matter what. What the British Hayward failed to realise was that most Americans don’t necessarily agree with this point of view. It is the American way to take responsibility for one’s mistakes and do everything you can to remedy a bad situation. Until the problem is solved, free time does not exist. Since Americans were affected most when Deepwater Horizon exploded, many wanted to see Tony Hayward on a boat participating in the clean-up.
Although much of his business is conducted in the U.S., Hayward did not demonstrate strong global competence. His lack of understanding regarding how the crisis would be received in the U.S. led to a backward slide of goodwill and a plunging stock price for BP. That summer, it would also cost him his job.
To find out how you can avoid a Tony Hayward-like PR catastrophe, read my advice over at the AMEX Open Forum.