When your company has been at the root of this country's biggest environmental disaster, you have to choose your words carefully. Businesses are suffering, and emotions among those living along the oil-stained Gulf coast are raw. And so when the chairman of BP, Carl-Henric Svanberg said after his meeting with President Obama today that BP cares "about the small people," a lot of us winced. Surely it was a linguistic, or perhaps a cultural faux pas. None of us for a moment would like to think Mr. Svanberg, who is Swedish, was talking down to or belittling the victims of this disaster. Just before stepping in front of the mics, he had agreed, albeit under White House pressure, to put $20 billion of his company's money into an escrow account to pay for claims from the oil leak.
Listening to his entire impromptu give and take with reporters it seemed he was trying to make the point that BP, despite the stereotype image of greedy oil companies has genuine concern for those who have suffered from this crisis. The term "small people," however got in the way of that message, and as our Ron Mott will report from the Gulf tonight it has enraged a lot of people he was hoping to reassure.
Mr. Svanberg has been mostly in the shadows during this crisis, as BP CEO Tony Hayward became the public face. Mr. Hayward's mention to reporters that he wanted his "life back" similarly garbled the company's message a few weeks back. Any of us who speak extemporaneously before a live TV camera know you are bound to eventually bumble a thought or say something you regret. Nine times out of 10, the viewer gives you the benefit of the doubt. At a time like this, BP faces a nearly empty reservoir of good will, and as they are painfully learning again, words as much as deeds count for a lot.
Full coverage of the crisis including new progress in the effort to siphon the oil tonight on NBC Nightly News. Please join us.