I don’t know what to make of (some) Americans’ reaction to Tony Hayward’s accent. I know a combination of xenophobia and a tradition of a sense of cultural inferiority to Brits may play into it. But I’m surprised at how it’s being held up as being emblematic.

Hayward, as the physical embodiment of BP and of the Gulf disaster, is being parsed down to a fundamental aspect of his being. What intrigues me is that it’s not just what he’s saying that’s in question, it’s how he’s enunciating it.

Hayward’s accent has become both a personal and corporate liability.

Here’s the HeraldScotland on June 20:

 Hayward has been a punching bag for anti-corporate rage ever since he planted his Oxford brogues in his mouth once too often. Thanks to the Home Counties lilt to his accent, this has sometimes crossed over into outright xenophobia. New York Congressman Anthony Weiner summed it up for NBC television: “Whenever you hear someone with a British accent talking on behalf of British Petroleum they are not telling you the truth. That’s the bottom line."

And blogger Jane Genova, a Connecticut speechwriter and ghostwriter whose blog I stumbled on while searching the subject, writes on June 6, 2010:

BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward has been so horrific in his public statements that the British accent has become downright cartoonish.  Expect it to be lampooned everywhere from "SNL" to the monologue on "Letterman."

While Genova’s suggestion that the British accent has become “downright cartoonish” seems exaggerated, the accent did become the subject (along with Hayward) of a cartoon. Political satirist Garry Trudeau takes on the issue in two recent Doonesbury cartoons with typical wry humour.

Duke says, “You need to play down the Brit connection, Tony. And I’d start by losing the fancy accent.” When the Tony character turns down the advice – “Mr. Duke, changing my accent is a bit of a non-starter” – Duke perseveres: “Can you do Ringo? Everyone loves Ringo.”

I’m not surprised that the public’s reaction to Hayward has been visceral. But I am (perhaps naively) surprised at how negative a value it has ascribed to the CEO’s accent, which is seen both as a personal marker and as symbolic of the BP brand. Does this underline the precariousness of a “brand voice,” and the power of shifting perceptions? Had Hayward been a transparent and better communicator, would his accent be such an issue? 

AuthorJinnean Barnard