What term do you use to describe spin about spin? Spin squared? Meta spin?
Whatever you chose to call it, a classic example is in full view in a New York Times article, “Another Torrent BP Works to Stem: Its C.E.O.”
If you were to believe the New York Times, which all too often appears to take dictation rather than engage in reporting, the big problem with the BP CEO, Tony Hayward, is that he has made some pretty shocking statements over the course of the Deepwater Horizon leak. The framing is “BP…now finds itself with one more problem: Tony Hayward, its gaffe-prone chief executive.” Examples:
The spill is not going to cause big problems because the gulf “is a very big ocean” and “the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.” And this week, he apologized to the families of 11 men who died on the rig for having said, “You know, I’d like my life back.”
What is truly astonishing is the way the article absolves Hayward of any managerial responsibility for the crisis. It refuses to acknowledge that these off-putting remarks are an accurate reflection of an astonishingly self-serving world view and that Hayward is ultimately responsible for this colossal mess. In Japan, executives resign and even commit seppuku for far less.
Now why might BP be doing its damndest to paint Hayward as a leader who is merely clumsy with the media, as opposed to someone who has been criminally negligent? Bloomberg points out the obvious, that some investors want his head:
BP Plc Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward faces rising speculation that the worsening oil spill will cost him his job as he grapples with worried investors, rating downgrades, U.S. politicians and public anger over the company’s inability to control the crisis….
“There is a question mark over the chief executive officer,” said Colin McLean, of SVM Asset Management Ltd. in Edinburgh, which holds BP shares. “The dividend will continue but be cut. A quarter or a third is quite possible.”…
Irish bookmaker Paddy Power offered even odds that Hayward will leave his post by the end of year. The New York Daily News yesterday called him “the most hated — and clueless — man in America” for his handling of the crisis.
“It looks increasingly likely that heads will roll, and Tony will be in the frame,” Dougie Youngson, an analyst at Arbuthnot Securities Ltd. in London, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “The longer these things go on, the shakier things look for the company.”
Yves here. The Bloomberg report makes clear that so far, the heat on the political front is more intense than that from shareholders. However, there is a good reason why CEOs who preside over disasters are typically ousted. They find it difficult to reverse policies and decisions that contributed to the problem. Even if they were the victim of bad luck (and the multiple failures in the Deepwater Horizon mess suggests not), they will lack credibility in plotting a new course.
And as we pointed out yesterday, the negative perception of Hayward is not just a matter of his words, but also his conduct. Consider his response to an injunction to force BP to provide cleanup workers with masks and other protective gear:
I’m sure they were genuinely ill, but whether it was anything to do with dispersants and oil, whether it was food poisoning or some other reason for them being ill. … It’s one of the big issues of keeping the army operating. You know, armies march on their stomachs.
Recall other examples: insufficient action to prevent oil from damaging the Gulf coast areas, which experts in booming say was entirely feasible. Or how about the refusal to let scientists anywhere near the leak until public pressure forced BP to relent a tad? You’d think if they were interested above all in solving the problem, as opposed to managing appearances, they’d be eager to tap the views of experts.
But the New York Times article portrays Hayward’s woes as a mere communications problem rather than a substantive issue:
Instead of reassuring the public, critics say, Mr. Hayward has turned into a day-after-day reminder of BP’s public relations missteps in responding to the crisis, which began six weeks ago and looks likely to continue well into the summer.
The article does not address the dead body in the room, that Hayward’s job is at risk, until the ninth paragraph of the piece. And it quickly reverts to a PR centric focus:
Those relief wells, which would be used to inject cement into the damaged well to permanently kill it, are not expected to be completed before August, and the environmental damage would linger well after that — which means that the company and Mr. Hayward face a public relations crisis that will last for many months.
Yves here. Huh? This is simply perverse. The significance of the environmental damage is….a continued PR crisis? What about liability? What about its responsibility to the communities within which it operates? This bizarre line of reasoning illustrates how low the standards of conduct for big companies have become.
The article continues in this vein, with six more paragraphs detailing the embattled oil producer’s lobbying and public relations strategies.
If the New York Times had positioned the piece as an examination of BP’s PR mistakes and how it was trying to regroup, it could have covered much the same ground and made a useful contribution. But it went off the rails in suggesting that communications was the main problem facing Tony Hayward. This line of thinking reinforces the idea that a CEO’s main job is “performance”, not in the traditional sense of producing results, but in the Hollywood parlance of acting.