News Cycle Turns in BP’s Favor


BP has received one of the biggest maulings in corporate history over the past three months as it struggled to contain the oil gushing from its well in the Gulf of Mexico. Newspapers, TV anchors, senators and even the U.S. President lined up to kick the company’s butt and vilify its boss, Tony Hayward.

Now, just a couple of days after Hayward threw in the towel and resigned for the good of his company, the news cycle appears to have turned in BP’s favor.

Just a month ago it would have been borderline heresy to suggest that BP wasn’t entirely culpable for the disaster that triggered the oil leak; or to consider whether the spill wasn’t in fact the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history; or to suggest that the brave souls who worked aboard the doomed rig or rushed to its aid may have made things worse. But that is what is happening now.

In the past seven days, some media outlets have acknowledged that–shock–perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as the headlines suggested in the heat of the moment.

We have seen that since the well was capped less than two weeks ago, most of the oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico have vanished; we have learned that workers for Transocean, which owned the doomed drilling rig, disabled a critical alarm system before the blast; scientists studying the Gulf have said that warnings of an ecological calamity are overblown; and the Coast Guard has admitted that a it may have been the poorly managed response to the rig fire, rather than the explosion itself, that caused the Deepwater Horizon to sink so quickly and foul the Gulf with oil.

Even sensationalist blogs that trumpeted the most fantastical claims from scarcely credible pundits have adopted a more sober tone.

So what happened? Was it Hayward’s prompt resignation that so dramatically changed the tone? If so, it could well have been one of the greatest PR moves in history.

However, it seems unlikely that alone was responsible for the shift in the tide. The most overtly BP-hating coverage began to dissipate weeks before it became clear that Hayward was going.

Was it the genius of installing Robert Dudley, BP’s incoming CEO, who replaced Hayward as the public face of the spill response in June?

There’s no doubt that the untainted Mississippi-native went down better with the U.S. public than gaffe-prone Hayward, but that alone was not enough to change things.

The answer is boringly simple–BP capped the well, oil stopped flowing into the Gulf, beaches and fisheries reopened, the TV cameras moved on to the next sensation and the doom mongers that didn’t have the sense to pack up and leave too were left looking a little silly. Indeed, Matt Simmons retired as Chairman Emeritus of Simmons & Co.

Just as new shoots of grass are sprouting on once-oiled marshes, the facts are beginning to thrive now that the flood of hype has receded.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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