07.22.10

The Disgraced CEO's Playbook

Take notes, Tony Hayward. Since his company’s mining disaster left 29 workers dead, Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s PR strategy has been to confront his critics head-on. He talks to Benjamin Sarlin about how he survived, and what the BP chief is doing wrong.

Take notes, Tony Hayward. After his company’s mining disaster left 29 workers dead, Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s PR strategy has been to confront his critics head-on. He talks to Benjamin Sarlin about how he survived, and what the BP chief is doing wrong.

Still jetlagged after a business trip to London, Massey CEO Don Blankenship was nonetheless all smiles as he passed by several dozen protesters chanting “Shame on Massey” and entered Washington’s National Press Club, where he was scheduled to give a talk on energy.

Upstairs at the club, one of his hosts asked if he saw the crowd, organized by the AFL-CIO (Blankenship is proudly anti-union), outside the building.

“Yeah I saw them,” he said with chuckle. “Mundane by my standards.”

“I’m sure BP took some attention away.”

In April, an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine operated by Massey in Montcoal, West Virginia, killing 29 miners. It was the industry’s worst disaster in 40 years, and prompted an immediate torrent of criticism over Massey’s safety record. The mine in question had seen its safety violations more than double between 2009 and 2008 and a number of workers complained to the press that they had been too frightened to blow the whistle on unsafe behavior they had witnessed. One of the survivors, Stanley Stewart, testified to Congress that the mine had been a “ ticking time bomb.” 

For a brief moment, mine safety rocketed to the front of the national conversation. But only two weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, deflecting attention to the spill threatening the Gulf Coast. Blankenship told The Daily Beast he had seen protests outside his appearances dwindle since then.

“I’m sure BP took some attention away,” he said.

The gulf between the two companies’ public handling of their disasters has been vast. While BP CEO Tony Hayward attempted to emphasize his company’s sense of responsibility and contrition in responding to the disaster, Blankenship lashed out at government regulators, who he blames for the mine explosion, and has shown little regret for any of his company’s actions. Hayward awkwardly extends his wrist for a slap; Blankenship defiantly offers the finger.

“It’s a difference in personality,” Blankenship’s spokeswoman, veteran conservative consultant Karen Hanretty, told The Daily Beast when asked about the comparison. She disputed, however, that his stance was more “combative” than BP’s: “When you see a CEO who’s unapologetic and proud of his industry, it gets called combative. He has a quiet demeanor.”

Blankenship is a self-made man, born and raised in West Virginia (he has a strong drawl), and his background offers him a major advantage over the British yacht enthusiast Hayward in presenting himself to American audiences.

In his speech at the press club, where he was flanked at his lunch table by activist Russell Mokhiber of ProsecuteMassey.org, Blankenship constantly invoked his upbringing and early career as a mine worker, telling the audience he wanted them to understand “the localness of my views.” At one point, he painted criticism of his company’s safety record as an attack on the basic dignity of the region.

“The fact the tragedy occurred is something that I’m not even sure yet how to avoid,” he said. “But the thing that most is disruptive or disturbing in the press is the idea that we as Appalachianers, or as coal miners, or as executives, or as businesspeople, don’t really value life—because we certainly would never put profits above safety.”

It was a typical Blankenship statement, suggesting that his company did nothing wrong, and that either government or a higher power were to blame.

“The politicians will tell you we're going to do something so that this never happens again,” he said in his speech at the club. “You want hear me say that because I believe that the physics of natural law or of God trump whatever man tries to do.”

If that’s the case, God and Mother Nature are frequent visitors to Massey’s mines, which have seen a number of fatal incidents in addition to the April explosion, the most recent having occurred this month. Forty-five coal miners have died in Massey mines since 2000, according to the United Mine Workers of America.

Blankenship has little patience for arguments in favor of increased regulation in the wake of these tragedies. He is engaged in a legal battle with the Mining Safety and Health Administration, which Massey accuses in court of contributing to the disaster by instituting faulty methods to keep methane at safe levels. Earlier Thursday, a memo from an MSHA official acquired by the AP accused Blankenship of using the lawsuit to distract from the company’s frequent failure to meet safety standards.

“I don’t expect fairness [from MSHA],”  Blankenship told the Beast, when asked about the article. “I’ve been around too long.”

Asked during his press club appearance if Massey and BP’s recent trials offered any lessons for the energy industry, Blankenship’s only suggestion was to take on regulators even harder.

“We're allowing a small group of people to dictate what we do in the field of energy and many times the industry is falling in line to avoid the criticism and avoid the press and avoid being called something other than green and we need not do that,” he said.

A House panel recently voted out a bill that would strengthen regulators’ ability to shut down dangerous mines, offer greater whistleblower protection to workers who come forward with complaints, raise penalties for safety violations, and make corporate officers potentially liable for criminal charges in accidents. For now, it seems like lawmakers are coming down on the same side as Blankenship on the incident at the Upper Big Branch mine: The bill is stalled in the Senate, and the Hill reports that Republican opposition makes its chances for passage slim.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.