There is a long and awkward history of corporate leaders saying the wrong thing when their companies are facing criticism. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein responded to his company's role in contributing to the recent financial crisis by suggesting he was doing "God's work." But BP CEO Tony Hayward, whose company just hired a former spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney to help handle the media, has outdone even Blankfein in his unfortunate comments since the company's Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up on April 20. The blast killed 11 people and sent thick, rust-colored oil billowing into the Gulf of Mexico, destroying natural habitats and devastating the coastal economy.
BP initially estimated that between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels of oil were gushing into the gulf each day. The current consensus pegs the figure at between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels. At 44 days in, it is already the biggest spill in U.S. history, and with no signs of a quick solution to halt the flow of crude, it's dwarfing the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.
Among Hayward's bizarre statements since the accident:
On April 29, The New York Times reported that Hayward, apparently exasperated, turned to fellow executives in his London office and asked, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?" (A possible answer might be the company's 760 safety violations over the last three years. ExxonMobil, in contrast, has had just one.)
On May 14, Hayward attempted to persuade The Guardian that "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."
Only a few days later, he told Sky News that "the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest." That might surprise the many scientists who see the spill as a true environmental calamity, the full extent of which remains unclear.
On May 30, Hayward was less bullish and decided to play the sympathy card. He told the Today show that "there’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back." (He has since apologized for those remarks.)
On May 31, he told the world that ecosystem-threatening underwater oil plumes—consisting of droplets of partially dissolved oil suspended in water that many scientists have observed—do not exist. He said simply, "There aren't any plumes."
On June 1, Hayward responded to claims that cleanup workers were being sickened by the fumes from the oil they were exposed to by suggesting another possible, non-oil-spill cause. When nine workers fell ill, according to Yahoo News, he told CNN that "food poisoning is clearly a big issue."
But Hayward is not alone in his manful struggle to spin the news in the face of daunting factual evidence. His colleague Bob Dudley, managing director of BP, told NBC's Meet the Press on May 30 that "I think Tony's doing a fantastic job." To paraphrase President George W. Bush during another poorly managed Gulf Coast disaster: heckuva job, Tony.