Tony Hayward's latest PR gaffe is pilloried in US

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The Independent US

The full-page advertisements were still running in America's newspapers touting the steps BP is taking to counter the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and help those affected, but no amount of money spent on public relations has been able to change the only page that really matters for the energy giant: the front one.

And yesterday, just when you thought that BP had exhausted every PR gaffe possibility, America's headline writers had another field day at the expense of the hapless chief executive Tony Hayward, after it emerged that he had spent part of the weekend watching his yacht racing in Cowes. "Capt Clueless", blasted the New York Post.

The "BP Bozo", another Post coinage, was there for Saturday's JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race after directors sent him back to London and away from running the spill operations. The decision to sideline Mr Hayward came after testimony on Capitol Hill that was widely deemed disastrous and remarks that downplayed the disaster and addressed the extent to which it had mucked up his own personal life.

But a place on the sidelines has not insulated the beleaguered boss from America's anger. Withering would best describe reaction in the US to his yachting trip. The White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said yesterday on ABC TV: "I think we can all conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR consulting."

Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, who rarely shies from speaking his mind, also attacked Mr Hayward. "That's the height of arrogance," he said. "I can tell you that yacht ought to be here skimming and cleaning up a lot of the oil. He ought to be down here seeing what is really going on, not in a cocoon somewhere."

Score another round, perhaps, to the White House in its efforts to depict the oil company as the insensitive culprit in the ongoing crisis. Yet, the Saturday schedule of Mr Obama and Vice President Joe Biden did not go entirely unnoticed at the weekend – the two men spent a rare few hours golfing together.

Video: Crisis-hit BP chief goes sailing

Meanwhile, there was more bad news for BP, when an internal document released yesterday showed that the oil spill could be nearly double original estimates of 100,000 barrels a day. The undated document released by Congressman Ed Markey is BP's worst case scenario estimate.

As residents of the Gulf struggle to protect their beaches and livelihoods, the political struggle remains just as intense. Aides to Mr Obama last night again seized on remarks made during the Capitol Hill hearings by a Republican Congressman from Texas, Joe Barton, characterising the deal for BP to put $20bn (£13.4bn) in a fund to pay compensation claims as a White House "shakedown" of BP.

Speaking on ABC, Mr Emanuel pointed to the Barton comment, which the member had hastily to recant under pressure from his own party's leadership, as a reason why it would be "dangerous" for American voters to support Republicans in the mid-term elections coming in November.

The man chosen to administer the new fund, Kenneth Feinberg, also insisted that he did not believe any "shakedown" had occurred. "These people in the Gulf are in desperate straits," he said, adding: "I don't think it helps to politicise this programme."

How BP intends to repair its PR operations is unclear. The day-to-day running of the spill response has now been handed to the managing director, Bob Dudley, who has also in past weeks been a participant in BP's efforts to downplay the extent of the spill and the likely damage on the environment.

The gaffes that Mr Hayward could call his own included not only his comment during a television interview that he would like his "life back" but his prediction a few days earlier that environmental impact of the gushing well was likely to be "very, very modest".

Then again, the man who engineered his move back to London last week, Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP's chairman, made his own contribution to the mess, suggesting last Wednesday that BP had not forgotten the "small people". And then came Mr Hayward's Cowes outing. "He wanted to get his life back," Ronnie Kennier of Empire, Louisiana, snipped yesterday. "I guess he got it."