Reporter’s Notebook: One-on-One in Houston With BP’s Bob Dudley
Ever since our hour-long, live-streaming interview with BP executive Bob Dudley last week, which featured questions from the public submitted via YouTube and Google, people have been asking me questions about how the conversation unfolded and the reactions to it. Here’s a bit of backstory.
As public complaints and politicians’ outrage about BP CEO Tony Hayward mounted, speculation began about how long the leader of one of the world’s largest energy companies would keep his job. Oil continued to burst into the Gulf of Mexico from deep underwater, with no permanent solution in sight. And Hayward’s testimony on Capitol Hill was judged in the court of public opinion as no help at all.
After the testimony on the Hill, and an ill-timed visit to a yachting competition, Hayward didn’t lose his job but instead stepped aside as the public face of BP’s leak response. Enter Dudley, a member of the board, an old BP hand and a man whose childhood in Mississippi might give him a better idea about how to talk to Gulf Coast residents about the efforts to control the oil.
Dudley stepped in on June 18 as the CEO of the newly created entity, the Gulf Coast Restoration Organization. Less than two weeks into the job, he agreed to sit down with me for an unusual program: a one-hour conversation, with questions from Americans from all walks of life, the result of a partnership of the PBS NewsHour, YouTube and Google called “America Speaks to BP.”
As a team from the NewsHour set off for Houston to make arrangements, a call for questions was launched on YouTube’s CitizenTube page and on the NewsHour’s website. Meanwhile, Hurricane Alex was threatening the oil response effort, but now had turned to the south, making landfall near Mexico’s border with southernmost Texas. We weren’t going to get the high winds and damage…but Houston was going to get soaked.
We were given space near the cafeteria, which featured glass walls facing a courtyard. A nice place to eat lunch perhaps, but a lousy place to make TV since natural sunlight registers differently from television lighting. As the morning progressed, it looked like the sun was not going to be an issue, as dark clouds set in and rain pounded the building.
Everything was in place. A casually dressed Dudley arrived, apologized that he wasn’t wearing a coat and tie, hoping it wouldn’t be a problem (it wasn’t), and we got down to business. I had been checking the questions submitted online all morning … there were way too many good ones to ask. Dudley would have to sit there for days to get to all of them. I was impressed by the detail, the care taken by our questioners, and the close attention paid to the spill over the past ten weeks that informed their queries.
Plenty had come in by video as well. People really made an effort to shoot questions and produce effective TV, adding illustrative video to supplement their direct gaze into the camera and their question for Dudley.
The livestream began at 2:30 CST, with a question from a representative of the Houma Nation in Louisiana, an American Indian tribe seeking federal recognition, settled for generations along the Gulf of Mexico. And we were off…
How many local people have been hired?
Is BP doing a good enough job getting cash into the hands of Gulf Coast residents whose livelihoods have been taken away by the spreading crude?
Will BP pay reparations over the long haul, or could the company hide behind bankruptcy to escape mounting liability?
What about the oil dispersant Corexit, is it safe for widespread use in the Gulf of Mexico?
How are BP gasoline dealers around the country faring? Any sign of a gathering boycott or downturn in sales?
Dudley was by turns reassuring, contrite, cautious and sympathetic. The BP executive said there was no way his company would use bankruptcy to dodge its responsibilities. He insisted the company is in solid financial shape despite the millions heading out the door daily, and that he realized the rest of BP’s operations in North America would be coming under intense scrutiny. The blowout preventers on other company deep-water wells would be inspected, tested, strengthened.
Dudley denied that his company was trying to block public access to information from the areas worst affected by the leak. He had ordered the word out to all permanent and temporary employees in the Gulf that there was no impediment to talking to the press and public, and instruction to be as truthful as possible when answering questions.
The company clearly realizes it has a problem with its public communication a month and a half into the mounting crisis. High-ranking executives don’t do programs like this one every day. They certainly don’t admit mistakes, delays and blunders without a bigger threat of even greater losses in the future hanging overhead. Dudley took pains to insist, and insist again that hoteliers, fishermen, shrimpers and the other workers of the region losing money to the spreading oil would be made whole.
I followed up on viewer questions, asked for clarifications and added questions of my own. One reason I had jumped at the chance to do the program was my fascination with the format. Crowdsourcing has become commonplace on the web, but has yet to become an everyday feature of how we make television news. Our 24-hour pile of questions was turned into a virtual news conference allowing people who will never get the chance to talk to BP senior management about their dismay with what’s happening to the Gulf.
We’ll know about the quality of Dudley’s forecasts as the next weeks bring either more progress in stopping the gusher in the Gulf, or unabated environmental damage. As Dudley described it, the relief wells are still some time from completion, and hardly a sure thing. And until the spill stops, his company won’t be able to begin a complete accounting of the damage that’s accumulated since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, burned, collapsed and began this disaster.