NEW YORK (
) -- It's been almost a year since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and some of the primary players are back in the news -- whether they like it or not, and whether or not they've learned a darn thing about public relations.
was busy in the past week awarding annual bonuses and citing safety as a reason for lucrative compensation to five top officials totaling $19.5 million -- and then, and only then, realizing that citing safety as a reason for hefty executive pay wasn't such a bright idea in the year of the fatalities on the Deepwater Horizon. Apparently it was the best year for safety in the history of Transocean!
What, you didn't notice what a bang up job Transocean did in 2010 when it comes to safety, as the images of the fireball once known as the Deepwater Horizon rig and the testimony from the family of workers killed in the disaster remains fresh in your oil spill memory?
Not since Halliburton was added to Dow Jones sustainability indexes shortly after the oil stopped gushing from the BP Macondo well has such an interesting "pat on the back" been given to one of the primary companies bearing responsibility for the natural disaster.
Transocean quickly backtracked from its safety dancing, though its contrition left something to be desired, with an apology that more or less begrudged the public its right to find bonuses for executives during a year when 11 workers were killed on Transocean's rig to be offensive.
Ihab Toma, Transocean's executive v.p. for global business (and one of the executives to hit pay dirt as a result of the "safety" successes made by Transocean in 2010), said in a public-relations-nightmare management statement, "We acknowledge that some of the wording in our 2010 proxy statement may have been insensitive in light of the incident that claimed the lives of eleven exceptional men last year and we deeply regret any pain that it may have caused."
Here's a good corporate foot-in-mouth rule of thumb: when an apology is meted out in "mays," it "may" not be the straightforward admission of bone-headedness that's merited by the situation.
The U.S. government let Transocean have it in response to the insensitive comments, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stating, "At the end of the day, it was that complacency that created an oil spill" that gushed for three month in the Gulf of Mexico.
William Reilly, the co-chairman of the national oil spill commission, even more to the point in reaction to the Transocean bonuses, said, "I think Transocean just doesn't get it.... It's embarrassing to see a position taken like that by an industry leader."
The Transocean bonus gaffe was even more striking since, in 2009, the company withheld bonuses from executives due to four worker fatalities, and stated that the bonuses had been withheld to prove the company's commitment to safety and an "incident-free" workplace, and "in particular, the avoidance of future fatal accidents."
What a difference a year makes.
From the markets perspective, Transocean isn't doing the drilling industry any favors, either, as the industry seeks to get back to work in the Gulf of Mexico sooner rather than later. The court of public opinion does still matter in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and even if gasoline is $4 at the pump, Americans "may" not look too kindly on an industry that's represented by a company that thinks it's OK to pat itself on the back with wads of dollar bills for helping to create the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Their government "may" remember the insensitive actions of a company at the heart of the oil spill as it navigates the delicate waters of again approving drilling in the Gulf, too.
CEO Steven Newman and his top four deputies decided in retrospect to give 25% of their 2010 bonuses -- more than $250,000 awarded for safety -- to funds for the families of workers killed in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.
"The executive team made this decision because we believe it is the right thing to do," Newman said, and the company noted that the donations were made voluntarily.
Sure. It "may" be the right thing to do, but only after the court of public opinion and the press informed Transocean that they had just done about the most insensitive thing imaginable.
Transocean may say "better late than never," but in this case, it should have just been "never" -- sort of like the oil spill and the loss of the 11 lives of Transocean workers.
-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.
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