How PR Gaffes Got BP’s CEO Insta-Fired
On April 20th, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Eleven workers were instantly killed, their bodies never found. In addition, 17 workers were badly injured.
For the next 87 consecutive days, oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. Before it stopped, more than 210,000,000 gallons were leaked into the surrounding waters. It would affect all local marine life, many of them succumbing to terrible, slow deaths.
The explosion was caused by a kick. These happen when the rig is drilled deep into the seafloor via a pipe. There’s a mix of liquids beneath that floor (natural gas, oil, water) that can suddenly become pressurized and flow upwards to the floating rig. The mechanism is very much like a volcanic eruption.
A kick is usually mitigated by a blowout preventer:
This machine is designed to lock shut if there is a sudden upward surge of liquid. There are two different defenses in place to stop it. That day, both failed.
Oil shot up to spurt everywhere at the top of the rig. Eventually, it was ignited by a trigger of some type (metal hitting metal, friction, etc). It wouldn’t take much.
The massive explosion triggered the blowout preventers' final defense mechanism. It’s called a “deadman’s switch,” which is designed to go off when all power is cut off and, in a final act, seal the pipe at the bottom. However, it was installed improperly causing its remote battery to drain. Put more bluntly, BP employees got lazy while installing the most important part of a multi-billion dollar oil rig.
With all three final defenses failing, a near-unstoppable leak began from the seafloor. It would be the worst human-caused natural disaster in US History.
Every day on the news, you saw birds and dolphins covered in oil. The animals suffered across all surrounding coasts. Here in Florida, we had oil on our shores. Fisherman’s careers were affected as fish populations declined. To this day, there are higher levels of oil in the sediment here.
The fires burned for three days straight, with black fumes reaching up into the sky.
You can trace the most disasters back to some form of laziness, a lack of process, and supervision. Having worked in transportation, it’s old news that employees will cut corners at any opportunity to save time. BP was no exception.
After that baton has been dropped, it’s on a company to take initiative to remedy the situation. BP, to their credit, deployed substantial resources to fix things.
BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, became his own worst enemy through the duration of this crisis. His club-handed comments seemed to come one after another.
“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.” — Interview with Guardian
“I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.” — Interview with Sky News
Both of these comments are categorically false. History and science have proven that much. There’s a separate essay that can be written on the damage that can still be seen today.
“What the hell did we do to deserve this?” — interview with the New York Times.
This makes it seem like some unseen force, or a criminal caused the spill, rather than poorly trained and managed workers.
But what finally landed the CEO in truly hot water was: “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
While one can understand the difficulty of being CEO of BP during such a disaster, his comment was barbed with poor logic. The statement was particularly unpalatable to the relatives of the eleven people that were blown to bits. They’d have liked their lives back too. The turtles, fish, dolphins, and birds, flopping around covered in oil probably wanted their lives back as well. The locals probably wanted their clean beaches and water back.
His statements would even draw commentary from then-president Obama, who said, quite bluntly, “He wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements.”
Hayward then did a repair-statement, “I made a hurtful and thoughtless comment. I apologize, especially to the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in this tragic accident. Those words don’t represent how I feel about this.”
BP went on to plead guilty to eleven counts of manslaughter. They would be subject to numerous regulations and spent more than $4 billion on repairs. They were also heavily monitored for four years.
From the very start of the disaster on April 20th, company CEO Anthony Hayward gave a string of PR blunders. There were more, including his congressional hearing, where he appeared to deflect blame to vendors and suppliers rather than take full ownership of the disaster.
Then, on June 15th, while oil still poured into the Gulf of Mexico, he took a trip to participate in a yacht race around the Isle of Wight.
He did voice his apologies for the damage to employees, locals, and wildlife, which included the death of more than 100,000 birds, 5,000 sea turtles, and many, many more. Yet, his actions consistently reflected more concern with himself than the harm inflicted by his company.
On July 27th, 2010, only three months after the spill, it was announced he was being replaced as CEO. It’s hard to imagine any oil CEO could survive such a catastrophe. But Hayward did himself no favors by opening his mouth or taking a big yachting trip two months after-the-fact, while this was still happening:
His nickname, “The Bumbler from BP” was not without merit.
Sometimes we just need to take a step back from a situation, forget about job security, forget about money, and realize that it isn’t always about us.