June 3, 2010 3:00 am

Oil major now faces public relations disaster

On Tuesday evening Tony Hayward, BP's chief executive, was having dinner in a New Orleans restaurant with Thad Allen, the Obama administration's chief co-ordinator for the oil spill disaster, when they were interrupted by James Carville, the legendary Democratic operative and scourge of how the emergency has been handled.

Never having been introduced, Mr Hayward and Mr Carville spent the next 20 minutes sometimes heatedly "agreeing to disagree" about the nature of the operation to contain a disaster threatening to ruin the latter's native Louisiana.

The two then agreed to meet again in the same restaurant this time next year to test Mr Hayward's promise that BP would still be there helping to clean up the mess. "It was terse but polite," said Mr Carville. "I gave him some free advice and expressed my scepticism about what he was promising."

For a company whose name has become synonymous with corporate incompetence, the words BP and public relations no longer fit well together. BP officials insist they are doing all they can to keep the US public informed without putting spin on the spill.

Its army of critics, led by Ed Markey, the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, who chairs the House energy committee, say the company has consistently tried to put a positive gloss on what is an unmitigated disaster - the environmental catastrophe equivalent of trying to put lipstick on a pig. Officials on Capitol Hill point to Mr Hayward's disputes with university scientists over the existence of an enormous plume of oil beneath the surface that they say stretches hundreds of miles.

They also point to BP's disagreements with scientists about the amount of oil gushing from the well, which it allegedly underestimated by several hundred per cent in the first few weeks after the blow-out.

When BP last month tried to switch off its now ubiquitous live video feed of the oil gusher, critics saw this as yet another example of it attempting to massage its image. BP officials say that they intended only temporarily to switch off a feed that could have had real-time consequences on its share price as the remotely operated vehicles attempted to put a cap on the well.

The latest controversy stems from BP's decision on Tuesday to appoint Anne Womack-Kolton, a former press officer for Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, as the head of BP America's media operations. Ms Womack-Kolton was also a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy during George W. Bush's administration. "It defies belief that BP could be this inept," says a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill.

Yesterday the Center for American Progress, Washington's leading liberal think-tank, branded the BP spill as "Cheney's Katrina" in a paper that argued it was the culmination of cosy ties between regulators and industry that stemmed from Mr Cheney's 2001 "energy task force", which established the Bush administration's friendly stance towards the oil sector.

It alleges a direct connection between Mr Cheney and the inadequate - some allege criminally negligent - role of the Minerals Management Service, the industry regulator in Washington, which President Barack Obama is breaking up into separate agencies. For BP the negative response to Ms Womack-Kolton's appointment fits with what they say is a political and media environment they can do little to assuage.

Andrew Gowers, head of BP media and a former editor of the Financial Times, says: "Anne is an experienced media professional with significant experience of the energy industry, who only worked for former vice-president Cheney for five months. This is a media not a political appointment and Anne will in no way be responsible for BP's relations with Capitol Hill."

Others disagree, saying the appointment feeds into a perception that BP is operating in a bubble and pays no heed to how most people perceive it.

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