BP chairman talks about the 'small people,' further angering gulf

After a White House meeting with President Barack Obama, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg told reporters he cares about the small people living along the Gulf coast. (June 16)
By Ann Gerhart
Thursday, June 17, 2010

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg attempted an earnest apology Wednesday for the worst environmental accident ever to befall America, but it will be remembered for only two words:

"Small people."

Svanberg came with other BP executives to the White House, where he said President Obama made clear that he is "frustrated because he cares about the small people."

"And we care about the small people," added Svanberg, who is Swedish. "I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don't care. But that is not the case indeed. We care about the small people."

Just like that, a new slogan was born. It sardonically swept through cyberspace and landed in the gulf, where it was greeted with no more enthusiasm than the unrefined crude gushing from BP property.

"We're not small people. We're human beings. They're no greater than us. We don't bow down to them. We don't pray to them," said Justin Taffinder of New Orleans.

"Purely a translation matter," e-mailed BP spokesman Scott Dean. And later Wednesday, Svanberg apologized for his apology: "I spoke clumsily this afternoon, and for that, I am very sorry."

BP's European executives have consistently struggled to strike the right tone in response to the oil spill. Svanberg was the guy who was supposed to demonstrate all the humility that Tony Hayward, the company's chief executive, can't quite muster.

Early on, Hayward outraged Gulf Coast residents and officials when he pledged to honor "all legitimate claims," then scoffed, when asked for examples of illegitimate claims: "I could give you lots of examples. This is America -- come on. We're going to have lots of illegitimate claims. We all know that."

Later, Hayward complained: "There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back."

BP officials have also caught flak for using the word "scheme" -- British parlance for a large institutional plan but a word more akin to "scam" here -- when talking about a fund to pay claims.

Here's a tip: In America, when we say "put a lid on it," we mean all of it.

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