"We are responsible, not for the accident, but we are responsible for the oil and for dealing with it and cleaning [it] up," BP's chief executive Tony Hayward said yesterday. It will come as no comfort to the fishermen facing ruin from the slick, and no help at all to the wildlife facing a lingering death because of it, but BP may be getting its public relations strategy right. Or at least, not getting it wrong.
Mr Hayward's statement obeyed rule No.1 for a firm which, directly or not, has caused an event which has outraged the public: don't quibble.
BP had leased the rig from its Swiss owners, Transocean. Yesterday Mr Hayward placed responsibility for the spill firmly at Transocean's door, saying that its equipment caused the spill. Guy Cantwell, a Transocean spokesman, responded by saying: "We will await all the facts before drawing conclusions and we will not speculate."
BP has taken on the chin its own part in sorting out what may turn out to be the biggest oil disaster in history. But in truth, it has little choice. Were it to act otherwise, it would find American anger magnified a hundred-fold, as US patience with BP has worn thin after a series of industrial accents, such as the 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery, and spills from its Alaska pipeline in 2006.
However, in accepting total responsibility for the clean-up, which could cost as much as $14bn (£9.2bn), BP has at least stopped digging in the hole in which it finds itself, and avoided the recent PR disasters of Toyota and Goldman Sachs. Last year Toyota played down the problem of potentially fatal faulty accelerators and declined to take responsibility for weeks, prompting a global tide of criticism. Goldman continued to pay staff huge bonuses despite receiving US state aid, and has been seen to be working against its own clients, but has appeared not to register the intense public resentment this is bringing down upon its head.
To satisfy its critics, BP will have to do more than just take responsibility. It will have to clean up the oil, quickly and with no expense spared, down to the last tarball in the last Louisiana tidal creek.