Friday, September 02, 2011

Spills, spin, morals & a trusty correspondent!

A corporate scandal, disaster or an implosion always creates an appetite for literature on the subject. Amid a cacophony of books – some hurried, some scrambled and some downright rubbish – you often have to wait for a book that is the real deal. The Oilholic is delighted to say that if BP, its culture, the mother of all oil spills and its underlying causes are of interest to you, then Reuters correspondent Tom Bergin’s book – Spills and Spin: The Inside Story of BP – is the real deal and was well worth the wait.

Perhaps for many potential readers of this book, the author - a former oil broker turned newswire correspondent - would be a familiar name; Bergin’s wire dispatches have been flickering on our Reuters monitors for some time. However, if you were a shade worried that so networked a man as the author would give some within BP an easy ride, then that worry gets smashed to pieces a few pages into the book.

The Oilholic can safely say that in the energy business there are no moral absolutes. On reading Bergin’s account, the “pre-spill” BP it seems lost sight of morals full-stop. In a book of just under 300 pages, split by ten chapters banking on his experience as an oil correspondent, the author notes that what transpired when Deepwater Horizon went up in flames was not some isolated incident. Via a fast paced and gripping narration, he provides an account as well as his conjecture about all things BP and where did it all start to go wrong.

In order to contextualise what led up to the Gulf of Mexico spill and its aftermath, Bergin first examines BP’s history and its trials in some detail, then the transformative impact – for better or for worse – of John Browne, his successor Tony Hayward and corporate decisions throughout their time which transformed a once troubled part player into a big league major.

For over a decade and more, accompanying this transformation was what the author describes as the most sophisticated PR machine of all times which failed miserably when the company faced its biggest modern day crisis thereby making the CEO at the time of the spill – Tony Hayward – the most hated or the most farcical man in America; some say both.

Browne’s ego, his protégés, advertising group WPP-devised “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, safety bungle after safety bungle from Texas to Alaska and boardroom politics are all there warts and all. It would be unfair to pick a component of the book and single it out as your favourite, for the whole book is. However, if one may take the liberty of doing so then Chapter 3 - "There's no such thing as Santa Claus" is the best passage of the book. Maybe the Oilholic is biased in favour of these few pages, for as a CNBC researcher working in the wee hours of the morning I had a firsthand feel of the "PR drive" Bergin refers to in that passage.

Lastly, if you thought a British, excuse me – an Irish writer (as he confesses to announcing himself when Stateside in the days of perceived anti-British sentiment) – may give former CEO Tony Hayward an easy ride then you are being unkind. In the spirit of journalistic integrity, Bergin gives Hayward – a man whom he often had unique access to – what we scribes describe as the “full treatment.”

When I met the author a few days prior to book’s release, he told me his work was not a damnation of a company based on a solitary incident, no matter how horrendous the Gulf spill was. Au contraire, Bergin notes the story of that spill itself did not begin on the night of April 20, 2010 but 20 years ago when a determined John Browne set out to create the largest corporation in the world followed by his successor Hayward’s own determination to succeed and then outdo his mentor.

Having read the book cover to cover and seen the author deliver on his promise, the Oilholic’s overriding thoughts are that Bergin’s Spills and Spin could in the fullness of time be as definitive a book on BP in wake of Macondo as Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s Smartest Guys in the Room was in wake of the Enron collapse.

This blogger is happy to recommend the book to fellow oilholics, students of the energy business, those interested in corporate history as well as the horrendous spill itself. Last but not the least, some from the PR industry might wish to read it as well; albeit as a lesson on what to omit from the PR playbook!

© Gaurav Sharma 2011. Photo: Front Cover – Spills and Spin © Random House Group

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