Out of sight and out of mind is the recommendation that image makers have for two key Gulf oil disaster figures suffering from foot-in-mouth disease. But can mouthy BP CEO Tony Hayward and his apologist, Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, recover from their verbal gaffes and, as Hayward famously whined, get their lives back?
No for Hayward; maybe for Barton. That's the view of two experts in public policy PR and image-making, former NBC News correspondent Fred Francis and former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow. They've teamed to create a new firm, 15-Seconds, to provide crisis advice and media training, and to launch a blog that dissects blunders like the BP fiasco and ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal's locker-room banter to a reporter about his superiors.
First Hayward, whose pronouncements about the situation have been wrong and whose yacht outing drew jeers from Gulf shrimpers docked because of the oil slicks covering their fishing grounds. "If Hayward were to announce a cure for cancer tomorrow, the public would believe he had been holding out on us for years," says Francis. "He should be neither seen—especially on yachts—nor heard," adds Harlow. Instead of Hayward, he says, "BP needs to identify a single spokesman in the Gulf—someone with an American accent, humility, and, above all, the ability to show genuine empathy for the victims of the oil spill." BP has since tried that.
Barton's in better shape, the duo thinks, though the administration's bid to use him as the face of the GOP could stall his recovery. Barton got in trouble when he apologized last week to Hayward at a congressional hearing for the administration's $20 billion "shakedown," a reference to the kitty the White House asked BP to create to cover gulf cleanup costs. "He's not quite as dead a duck as Hayward," says Francis. "There are lots of members of Congress competing in the 'dumb comment of the day' contest," he says. "When Barton does speak out, he should focus on matters other than the oil spill in the hopes that memories recede," says the former newsman. "The American people are a forgiving and forgetful lot. But when you have done as much damage to your reputation as Hayward has, your chances of recovery are BP—below pathetic."
If they won't follow the pros' advice, maybe Hayward or Barton should channel that famous fictional Gulf shrimper and common-man philosopher Forrest Gump, who has the perfect eight-word antidote: "That's all I have to say about that."
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.