Darryl Willis: BP's Unexpected Public Relations Man The 41-year-old BP geologist was chosen to oversee spill-related claims submitted to the oil giant. Willis, who was born in Louisiana but has spent much of his 20-year career abroad, says he sort of fell into the job.
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Darryl Willis: BP's Unexpected Public Relations Man

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Darryl Willis: BP's Unexpected Public Relations Man

Darryl Willis: BP's Unexpected Public Relations Man

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There is also a man in an orange polo shirt who's a big part of BP's effort to repair its reputation. His name is Darryl Willis, and you might have seen his face in full-page newspaper ads and on TV.

He's in charge of making sure BP compensates Gulf Coast residents hurt by the oil spill. It's a tough and often thankless job, but one he actually volunteered for.

NPR's Julie Rose reports.

JULIE ROSE: About 10 days into his role as head of oil spill claims for BP, Darryl Willis found himself in the glare of TV cameras and under fire from members of Congress, like Representative Maxine Waters.

Representative MAXINE WATERS (Democrat, California): Why isn't that a 24-hour number also?

Mr. DARRELL WILLIS (Director of Claims, BP): That number is not a 24-hour number.

Rep. WATERS: Why don't you make it a 24-hour number?

Mr. WILLIS: We will definitely do that.

ROSE: Willis says he didn't quite realize what he was getting into.

Mr. WILLIS: I actually took over this role, assuming that I would be tucked away in some office just making sure systems and processes were working.

ROSE: He says he just fell into the job after overhearing a conversation between some BP executives.

Mr. WILLIS: Folks were talking about paying claims in 30 to 60 days. And I knew, being from Louisiana, that was going to be about 30 days too long, and we needed to get people's claims paid as quickly as possible.

ROSE: And suddenly, this 41-year-old geologist, who normally scouts sites for new onshore wells, was in charge of paying claims for the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Then came the ubiquitous TV ads, making him BP's public face after other executives failed to connect with Gulf Coast residents.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. WILLIS: I was born and raised in Louisiana. I volunteered for this assignment because this is my home. I'll be here in the Gulf as long as it takes to make this right.

ROSE: The ads have led to skepticism that Willis is more public relations stunt than sincere Southerner. It's been more than 10 years since he lived in Louisiana. His current home is Houston, but he's spent much of his 20-year career with BP, abroad.

There are subtle signs that he's as much a globe-trotting company man as he is a native of New Orleans. For example, he walks into a Mississippi coffee shop on a swelteringly hot day, and he orders a steaming, hot cup of tea.

Mr. WILLIS: I lived in England for a couple of years, and really enjoyed having tea.

ROSE: Of course, he knows that true Southerners drink their tea so cold and sweet it'll make your teeth ache. But Willis doesn't feel like he needs to defend his Gulf Coast credentials. He helped his mother rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. WILLIS: It was so difficult for her that I ended up overseeing the process. And halfway through a process that had gone on for a number of months, the file was lost, and we had to start all over again. And she was devastated by it - and so was I. I don't want people to have to have that experience.

Unidentified Woman: How are you?

Mr. WILLIS: How's it going? Good. You guys are busy?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

ROSE: Which is why Willis has spent the last two months driving up and down the Gulf Coast, attending town hall meetings and dropping in on claims centers -like this one in Biloxi.

Mr. WILLIS: You got a good claim?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Mr. WILLIS: How's it going?

Unidentified Woman: Everything okay.

ROSE: These visits are really more about making sure the system's running smoothly.

Willis talks constantly about process and efficiency. Do we have enough claims centers? Are adjusters answering the phone fast enough?

Occasionally, he gets an angry earful about a rejected claim or a late payment, which he promises to fix. Often, he gets recognized.

Mr. WAYNE WHITE: Yeah, I've seen him on TV.

ROSE: Wayne White knew exactly who Willis was when he walked into the Biloxi center, but he didn't get a chance to tell him about the wages he's lost at a seafood processing plant.

ROSE: So, this guy's from Louisiana. Does that make a difference to you, knowing that he's from the Gulf Coast?

Mr. WHITE: Nope. Makes no difference until they get all this mess straightened out.

ROSE: Willis knows the claims process isn't working perfectly, but he's proud of the system he's set up. In the next 30 days or so, he expects to hand the whole thing over to Ken Feinberg, who's been named by the federal government to manage BP's $20 billion oil spill claims fund.

Then, Willis predicts he'll go back to his desk job in Houston. But thanks to all those TV ads, he'll probably always be known as that oil spill guy in the orange polo.

Julie Rose, NPR News, New Orleans.

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