LONDON // The gaffe-prone chief executive of BP, Tony Hayward, found himself the target of yet another onslaught from the White House after being spotted at a sailing event on Saturday off England's south coast. While tens of thousands of gallons of oil continued to pour into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico from BP's Deepwater Horizon well, Mr Hayward took time out to enjoy the more pristine waters off the Isle of Wight on England's south coast aboard his 16 metre yacht.
On ABC's This Week programme broadcast yesterday, Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama's chief of staff, mocked Mr Hayward's earlier, ill-chosen comment on Facebook that he wished the crisis were over so he could have his life back. "Well, to quote Tony Hayward, he's got his life back, as he would say," Mr Emanuel said. "And I think we can all conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR [public relations] consulting. This has just been part of a long line of PR gaffes and mistakes."
The BP chief's priorities, added Mr Emanuel, should be focused solely on capping the leaking well and helping the people of the Gulf region. Mr Hayward received a roasting last week when he was accused of "stonewalling" after he was grilled in Congress over the explosion that killed 11 men at Deepwater Horizon and the subsequent spill that has resulted in America's worst ever environmental disaster.
His laconic demeanour and a remark in an interview with The Times that he expected some bogus compensation claims to be made by Gulf residents have made him the favoured target for Mr Obama and Gulf residents affected by the spill. "Man, that ain't right," Bob Pitre, who runs a tattoo shop in Larose, Louisiana, told The Associated Press after hearing of Mr Hayward's outing on his $270,000 (Dh992,000) yacht "Bob".
"None of us can even go out fishing, and he's at the yacht races. I wish we could get a day off from the oil, too." Raymond Canevari, an artist from Pensacola, Florida, said that he was insulted that Mr Hayward should have gone to the race. "I think everyone has the right to do what they want in their free time, but he doesn't have the right to have free time at all - not until this crisis is resolved."
PR professionals in London agreed that Mr Hayward was again sending out the wrong message even though, on Friday, Bob Dudley, BP's managing director, had taken over the day-to-day control of the spill. "It seems incredible to me," said one PR executive who asked not to be named, "that Hayward's advisers could have allowed him to be seen out and about enjoying himself. "Worse still, he went to a sailing event. It's so obvious such an event just could not happen right now along the affected parts of the Gulf coast."
Hugh Walding, the coordinator of the Isle of Wight Friends of the Earth, felt Mr Hayward deserved all the criticism he was getting. "I'm sure that this will be seen as yet another public relations disaster for him from people who have got exceedingly upset about this whole thing," said Mr Walding. "Personally I don't think that the bloke is particularly competent from the results that he has delivered. He obviously doesn't have the technical know-how but he should at least be managing the image of the company better."
Charlie Kronick, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said that Mr Hayward's actions were "rubbing salt into the wounds" of communities affected by the catastrophe. BP spokesmen did their best to mend the damage. One said that he was spending time with his teenage son after being in the US for much of the past eight weeks. Another said that Mr Hayward was spending time with his family for the first time since the explosion in April and that he was "sure that everyone would understand that".
When it became apparent that very few people in the US understood that, a third company spokesman added: "No matter where he is, he is always in touch with what is happening within BP." There have been suspicions in the UK that Mr Obama has tried to divert criticism directed at him over the spill by focusing on Mr Hayward and stirring up anti-British feeling over the disaster. The British prime minister David Cameron is understood to have raised the subject in a telephone conversation with the president this month, mentioning the fact that the White House had started referring to BP as British Petroleum, a name the company dropped eight years ago.
In fact, while 40 per cent of BP's shares are British owned, 39 per cent are in American hands. And while Mr Hayward was under attack for his yachting trip, many people pointed out on the Washington Post website yesterday that Mr Obama had played golf and attended a Major League baseball game at the weekend. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org