The BP Oil Meltdown

Like you, I have been watching the BP oil spill spread across the Gulf Coast. The potential negative effects are beyond imagination. Or, as BP might say, they’re “Beyond Petroleum,” the company’s clever tagline. So, when things go wrong, as they have with BP, I’m wondering: is there a difference between contrition and responsibility?Since the spill, the head of BP, Tony Hayward, has been on nearly every television and radio program, in newspapers and online, and seemingly everywhere else. He’s done an admirable job of representing his company. One can only imagine the number of crisis management consultants that have schooled the BP exec in pinpointing the exact language and pitch to use.But saying you’re sorry – indeed, being contrite – should never be confused with embracing responsibility and, ultimately, accounting for one actions. For someone like Tiger Woods to be contrite but not accept responsibility is one thing; for BP it is something entirely different. One is largely a personal matter that has become public; the other is a public matter that directly affects people’s lives.

I often fear that we have conflated contrition and responsibility. We enable people, organizations and, yes, corporations, to proclaim how sorry they are, only for them to return to business as usual. There are press conferences, memos, solemn meetings, long talks, among other things, in which those who have done something wrong, are contrite, even ask for forgiveness, and then everything is deemed okay.

Except oftentimes everything is not okay. 200,000 gallons of crude oil spill into the Gulf Coast each day, wreaking havoc on fisherman and their families, the fragile eco-system, tourism, and the health of entire communities. One estimate is that the oil now covers 2,000 square miles, a figure sure to expand. No, things are not okay in the Gulf Coast.

Responsibility would require BP to own the accident, to find safer ways to drill oil, to work with federal and state officials to clean up the mess, to support local communities to adjust to this new reality. During the Exxon Valdez spill, Exxon made all sorts of pledges, only to tie up matters in court for years.

Contrition is a new short-hand for getting out of bad situations. Offer the quick apology, give the appearance of change and improvement, ask to be absolved, and then keeping moving. It’s the advice that celebrities get when they get caught in compromising situations; same for famous and not-so-famous athletes; same for corporations. Unfortunately, it has become the same approach for many of us, too.

The tagline “Beyond Petroleum” is meant to signal that BP cares more about simply drilling oil and selling gasoline. They now need to show us what it means to live out this tagline and account for their actions. Contrition is not enough.