Priorities are often a good sign of what someone is really thinking. We can tell what matters by where they are willing to first put their money, or by the first words out of their mouth, after something really big has happened. The immediate actions are a glimpse at what really matters to someone, before they've had a chance to hire some talking heads, and rewrite the story.
This is helpful in an age of spinmeisters, who are so good at getting us to drink the Kool Aid and agree that up is down or billions of gallons of spewing oil is only a temporary setback or an unfortunate incident.
Tony Hayward, CEO of BP is giving us some insight into his particular affections for us by choosing to spend millions on an ad campaign last week to talk directly to the people. Meanwhile, his company released a statement that they'd help out area businesses who were hurt as long as their claims were legitimate. They'd like to err this time on the side of caution.
Rather than pour billions of dollars, or at least millions, into helping small businesses' and American families' bottom lines that are going to become extinct right along with the wildlife along the East Coast, BP has instead hired Anne Womack-Kolton to wipe off all of the inky black goo and help us be grateful BP is still there.
By now, everyone's early warning system should be blaring because of the lines we're about to be fed, wholesale. Keep a picture of all of the pelicans coated in oil close by as a handy reminder. Womack-Kolton is previously best known for being Dick Cheney's former press secretary and part of the PR firm that worked so hard to make Big Tobacco not smell so bad.
BP has some big image-building to do in order to not go down in history as the company that caused the largest natural disaster in the history of the U.S., and by the time it's over, perhaps the world. Forget that BP also has another oil leak in Alaska to contend with right now, or that they have one of the worst records of any of their peers. That's a tall order.
Hayward has also chipped in $25 million to promote Florida beaches in yet another ad campaign. It appears that he is a big fan of "Mad Men." Apparently, no one told him just how much TV Americans like to watch, too. We've already seen endless coverage of the oil balls coming ashore and the long, slimy snake of oil that just keeps building. Telling us that it's really not as bad as we can see, just gives one more glimpse into how we can expect the cleanup to be handled.
Just to help them out, here's another recent example of what to do after you've screwed up in public and hurt someone else. Recently, umpire Jim Joyce blew a call during a game between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, calling Cleveland's runner, Jason Donald, safe when he was clearly out. The call cost Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. The incident could have spun out for the next few weeks as a nasty footnote in American sports.
However, immediately after the game, Joyce realized his error and asked to speak with Galarraga so that he could apologize. He was still in his uniform. Apparently, it's rare for umpires to admit when they're wrong, but Joyce didn't hesitate, didn't make excuses and didn't have someone else deliver his apology for him. He didn't even try to buy the pitcher dinner in an attempt to make him feel better. Galarraga, for his part, accepted the apology and the loss of a mention in baseball's history, with immense grace never losing his cool or his smile.
The next time Joyce came onto the field to call another game, Galarraga came over to greet him and shake his hand, his smile still in place. Even the Detroit fans were cheering for Joyce who was moved to tears. A perfect game was lost, but a moment of inspiration was created that touched far more people. It was all a reminder that when someone is truly sorry, they don't give you explanations in some kind of attempt to manipulate your reaction. They don't hire PR firms to write a better back story, either.
They stand out in front of it all and take responsibility, pour all of their resources toward fixing the actual problem, which is not their corporate image, and they leave the rest to history. Keep following the money, and just the money, and you'll know where BP's true intentions lie.
Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail Martha at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.