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Tony Hayward and Barack Obama struggle to stay afloat in oil spill crisis

US President Barack Obama and the head of BP, Tony Hayward, have struggled to manage the aftermath of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, making them both the target of fierce criticism. Tony Hayward will appear before US Congress on Thursday.


One of them has been crowned the king of poor communication, while the other is criticised for not communicating enough. For BP chief executive Tony Hayward and US President Barack Obama, the Gulf oil spill is not just an ecological catastrophe. As Hayward braces himself for a US congressional hearing on Thursday, both men are increasingly under fire for the way they have handled the crisis.

From the beginning, the ghost of Hurricane Katrina hovered above Obama’s head. Former President George W. Bush tackled the New Orleans emergency too late in 2004; did the current president commit the same error following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that unleashed a massive oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico two months ago? Obama's administration did deploy 22,000 workers to the site of the spill in the first two weeks of May, but for the most part the management of the clean-up operation has been left to BP.

The approach is now considered to have been a mistake. The British company not only made multiple missteps on the ground, but its public relations efforts have been a flop. The blame has gone mostly to Tony Hayward. “He doesn’t seem to be able to get on his feet very quickly,” said Khalid Aziz, the British author of “Managing Communication in Crisis”, in an interview with As the days and weeks went by, Hayward's public appearances would inspire published “Best Of” lists ranking his gaffes. His first comments in late April on the “modest” impact of the oil spill and how he would “like [his] life back” were particularly hard to swallow for Louisiana residents hit by the disaster.

Emergency meeting

It took almost a month for the White House to understand that public opinion considered the federal government and the oil company to be inextricably tied. In mid-May, polls published by CBS and CNN showed a majority of Americans holding a negative view of Obama’s handling of the oil spill. The main criticism levelled against the president was that he didn’t do enough to tackle the crisis. On May 25, the Obama administration attempted to turn things around. An emergency meeting was called in the Oval Office to tweak Obama’s public take on the situation and to distance him from BP.

Obama called a press conference for three days later - only his second since July 2009 – and decided to pay a second visit to Louisiana. He beefed up his speech and proclaimed himself responsible for the clean-up operations on the ground.

BP also tried to tend to its ailing image, hiring a new director of public relations and focusing its public statements more closely on the distress of the people directly affected by the spill. The company even went as far as to buy search terms on Google to maximize the visibility of its message.

'Fire Tony Hayward’

The problem for Tony Hayward is that the American president has decided to pull no punches when it comes to BP. Obama’s Republican adversaries have indeed gone to town on their favourite target, invoking an alleged collusion with BP. Sarah Palin has voiced her astonishment at the sluggishness of the White House response and invited Obama to call her so she can give him some advice on how to handle things. Even Democrats have been pressing the president to take more concrete action.

Obama is now coming down hard on BP, saying that he will make sure “BP pays for the damage it has done” and that if Tony Hayward was in his administration, he would be fired. The rhetoric and tone in which it is delivered are much changed from Obama’s declarations in early May, when he explained that BP was “doing everything it could”.

But Obama’s new strategy has not yet turned public opinion around. An Associated Press poll from June 15 showed that 52 percent of Americans remain critical of Obama’s handling of the spill. Will the fact that he managed to obtain BP’s word that it will create a 20-billion-dollar fund to those hurt by the disaster help redeem him in the eyes of US citizens? Whatever happens, one thing is certain: Tony Hayward will not be spared when he appears before an angry Congress on Thursday.

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