Portrait of an oil company in distress | FT Alphaville

Portrait of an oil company in distress

It was widely reported that Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, was a prominent no-show at this week’s World National Oil Companies Congress, which was being held in London.

Steve Westwell, the company’s chief of staff, stepped in at the last minute to deliver the prepared rhetoric — although even his BP Solar heritage didn’t stop Greenpeace protesters from heckling him down.

BP has now posted the full prose online. It’s entitled “Key roles and responsibilities of IOCs in an age of uncertainty”, a topic which had been planned well before the Deepwater Horizon incident struck — but which is now eerily poignant given what’s happened since.

First, the intro (our emphasis):

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to today’s conference. Let me start by apologising on behalf of Tony Hayward. He is genuinely sorry he can not be with you this morning, especially since there are so many good friends taking part in the conference. But he and I hope you will understand that his schedule is under incredible pressure as a result of current events. He wishes you a successful conference and looks forward to catching up with you all on a future occasion.

And now for some gritty facts regarding international oil company (IOC) responsibilities whilst working outside of national borders. In a nutshell, the media just doesn’t get it:

We have worked with partners in government and in industry to mount the biggest environmental response operation in history. Our efforts in the subsea are similarly collaborative – guided by what must rank as one of the most impressive collection of brilliant minds from the oil, gas, engineering industries, government, military and academia ever assembled in one place in peacetime.

Inevitably the issues often appear polarised and simplified when they’re portrayed night after night on the news. But the underlying story is more complex.

To give you one small example; An oyster harvester in Louisiana who has been affected by the spill pointed out that half of his family is in the seafood business, the other half in oil and gas. They have co-existed for 50 years That story highlights the interdependence of our industry and the society we serve. Society depends on the energy industry, and we owe a responsibility to society.

In fulfilling that responsibility, we will halt this spill, put right the damage that has been done, and rebuild confidence in BP. In the current heated atmosphere, words are easily taken out of context. That goes with the territory. But I’d ask people not to take this whole event out of context.

It was an unexpected and tragic incident that took place at the leading edge of our industry’s efforts to provide society with the energy it needs. We must find out exactly what went wrong and prevent a repetition. But we must not let it deter us from the wider, longer-term task of providing secure, sustainable, affordable energy for people around the world. When the media have left the gulf coast, we’ll still be there helping the community recover.

When the headlines are focussed elsewhere, we’ll still be cleaning up and dealing with claims for economic losses. And when the inquiries have been concluded and the consequent actions taken, I believe we’ll still be providing energy from remote and challenging locations. I’d like to leave you with a line from the great American leader Abraham Lincoln, which I feel is appropriate to where BP finds itself today. He said: “I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.” Thank you.

Of course, the summer season is usually the time when BP can expect a little more positive coverage in the national press, given its sponsorship of the prestigious National Portrait Gallery’s yearly Portrait Award.

The 2010 prize was awarded on Tuesday — at a ceremony not attended by Hayward — to Daphne Todd, aged 63.

Sadly, any positivity surrounding the event might have been slightly offset by the portrait’s inauspiciously grim subject matter – the corpse of Todd’s dead mother:

Because there’s nothing quite like linking your brand to a dead person when you’re battling a toxic and life-threatening oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Juxtaposed with Tony Hayward’s hugely inappropriate sailing trip at the weekend in the Isle of Wight, one has to wonder whether BP’s press office has any luck at all?

Or maybe this has something to do with Hayward’s epic costcutting drive disproportionately affecting the company’s beefed up public relations department?

Oh that’s right, it did. One of Hayward’s first moves as chief executive was to fire Anji Hunter, political spin-meister and networker extraordinairee — also wife of Sky’s political correspondent Adam Boulton. A quick reminder from the Guardian:

Tony Hayward, the new chief executive of BP, has made a determined effort to distance the oil group from the past by overseeing the departure of Anji Hunter, one of his predecessor Lord Browne’s closest advisers and who helped earn the company the damaging sobriquet, “Blair Petroleum”.

Ms Hunter was hired direct from Tony Blair’s office at Number Ten as communications director, although most presumed her role was to lobby government. BP said last night that Ms Hunter was leaving at the end of the year “by mutual agreement”, admitting a “small” but undisclosed payout would be made.

The company denied a rift between Ms Hunter and Mr Hayward, who took over on May 1 after an admission from Lord Browne that he had lied to the courts in an attempt to protect his private life .

Another high-profile departure since Hayward’s appointment has also been the firm’s much respected head of group media Roddy Kennedy. He retired in 2009.

Related links:
BP – a line in the sand?
– FT Alphaville
BP has nothing to fear… – FT Alphaville