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Now, yesterday's White House meeting marked a big change in BP's handling of the crisis. Previously, the public face of the company was its 53-year-old CEO, Tony Hayward. Yesterday, though, he was in the background, leaving the handling of public relations to the guy who talked about the small people. NPR's Jim Zarroli looks at Tony Hayward's handling of the crisis.
JIM ZARROLI: Tony Hayward took the helm of BP during what was - until this year - the worst crisis the company ever faced. In 2007, his predecessor, John Browne, was forced to step down following a prostitution and perjury scandal. To replace him, the board turned to Hayward, a former geologist who'd risen through the ranks of the company.
Iain Armstrong is an analyst at Brewin Dolphin, an investment management firm in London.
Mr. IAIN ARMSTRONG (Analyst, Brewin Dolphin): I think he comes across as a very genuine guy. He's spent a long time there. I think he's very committed to the cause.
ZARROLI: In other words, Hayward is a company man. Compared to the larger-than-life Browne, Hayward appears unassuming and modest. "The Economist" once said he is one of a handful of CEOs striking mainly for their blandness. But Hayward set about putting his stamp on the company and trying to change its culture.
In this 2009 speech, Hayward said BP had too many shallow generalists and not enough people with detailed knowledge of their fields. It was a company, he said, that was too top-down, too directive, and not good at listening.
Mr. TONY HAYWARD (CEO, BP): We had too many people that were working to save the world. We sort of lost track of the fact that our primary purpose in life is to create value for our shareholders.
ZARROLI: Hayward also tried to address BP's poor safety record. The company had pleaded guilty to clean-air violations following an explosion and fire that killed 15 workers in Texas. But Armstrong says the company actually got through 2009 with no major safety violations.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: I know this might sound crazy, but there actually is a much stronger culture towards safety. When you consider the track record in 2005 to 2008, it was a phenomenal change.
ZARROLI: But any improvements in BP's safety record were quickly forgotten in the wake of the April 20th explosion in the gulf, which killed 11 people. Since the spill, Hayward has mostly been encamped in Houston, overseeing the efforts to cap the well.
David Uhlmann heads the environmental law and policy program at the University of Michigan.
Professor DAVID UHLMANN (Environmental Law and Policy, University of Michigan): He's been on the front lines. He's been visible. He has, at least in some ways, tried to demonstrate that BP is accepting responsibility for what is happening on the gulf.
ZARROLI: Still, as efforts to cap the well drag on, Hayward has found himself the target of growing public anger over the spill, and some of the damage has been self-inflicted.
Early on, Hayward predicted that the environmental damage from the spill would be very, very modest. He denied reports from scientists of underwater oil plumes forming. And there was this remark on "The Today Show," on May 30th.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Today Show")
Mr. HAYWARD: There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I'd like my life back.
ZARROLI: After that remark, President Obama said Hayward should be fired. Comments like the one Hayward made on "The Today Show" have done little to help foster public confidence in BP's management, says David Uhlmann.
Mr. UHLMANN: He has not come across as somebody who is either particularly able to effect the kind of change that needs to happen within BP, or has enough command of this situation to do what's needed to be done to stop this tragedy from continuing.
ZARROLI: At the same time, many BP shareholders are unhappy over the company's falling stock price. Some have complained that Hayward didn't fight back against what they saw as the Obama administration's efforts to demonize the company.
Meanwhile, Hayward appears to be taking a less prominent role in the spill cleanup. At a press conference following yesterday's meeting at the White House, most of the speaking was done by the BP chairman. For the most part, Hayward stood behind him, far away from the microphone.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News.