THE BLOG
06/30/2010 04:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Meet the new face of BP's damage control campaign

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson for theGrio
Darryl Willis has recently emerged as the public face of BP. He is the VP of Resources for BP America and in charge of handling the legion of damage claims pouring into the oil company. This became glaringly apparent when a solemn, studious, and very sincere appearing Willis stared into a camera and declared that "I'll be here in the Gulf for as long as it takes to get it right." This is precisely what many believe BP's gaffe-prone, CEO Tony Hayward couldn't do.

The ensuing commercial has become ubiquitous on television with Willis trying to assure that though BP can't wipe away its horror of the past two months, it's doing everything to make amends and that includes shelling out tens of millions to those hurt by the spill. A native of New Orleans, a geophysicist by profession, 20 years as a middle ranking BP executive, and lacking a British accent, Willis seems the ideal person to lead BP's new PR offensive.

But can he work miracles for BP and make things right in the Gulf? Is Willis's rise to the top a cynical, play of the race card by a company that's been hammered for its environmental and economic destruction, ineptness, public insensitivity, and dodges and evasions? The skepticism about Willis and his actual role in BP damage control is a legitimate point of debate, and derision, by some African-Americans. But Willis makes clear that he's no smiling face front man for the company and ticks off facts to back up the claim that he and BP will do what it takes to as he repeatedly told me "to make it right." Willis tells much more in this theGrio exclusive. You be the judge.

theGrio: What is the attitude of African-American fishermen, hotel and restaurant workers and owners in the Gulf that have been affected by the spill toward BP?

Darryl Willis: I was at a town hall in Port Sulphur, a town north of Venice, Louisiana. It was a heated town hall. The participants were mostly African-American. They were concerned about being included in the settlement and the claims process. They also expressed concern about getting back to work, getting their boats back in the water. It was an opportunity for me to connect with the folks in the Gulf affected by the spill. It was an opportunity for me to make sure that we're tapping into communities in a positive way. The key thing that we have to do is to keep listening to people. But there is frustration on the part of many African-Americans.

Is there a sense among African-Americans in the region that they're being excluded from the settlement and claims process?

I don't get that sense. However, African-Americans do want to be more visible in the process. But African-American claimants are walking into the claims centers with their documentation and leaving with payments for the damages. That gives me a sense of ease. But we want to engage local persons and businesses in the clean-up, repair process.

How deeply affected were African-Americans by the spill?

It has had a deep effect on those involved in the oyster, shrimp, and crab and the fisheries. The fact that they can't get out on the water and make a living is where the frustration comes in. They thank BP for the checks. But they still want to get back to work and make a living. The best thing they say for us is to clean up the spill so we can get back out on the water.

Have you been personally involved in the escrow fund set up negotiations? And how does it actually work?

My talks have been with Kenneth Feinberg, President Obama's appointed Oil Fund overseer. We've talked about distributing the payments. We've talked about how to make the process more efficient, speedy and transparent to local individuals and business claimants as well as transparent to local, state and federal agencies. We've talked about how to make the way we act with the community more consistent across the Gulf Coast. Ken said this is the first time that he's gotten involved in a claims process that's up and running. We've opened up 45 offices, written 40,000 checks, and paid out $130 million in claims. It takes 4 days on average for a claimant to get a check. For businesses, it's taken 8 days.

There's still much skepticism about BP's intentions and efforts?

The proof is in the pudding. Since June 1 we've paid out $90 million in claims. Anyone who doesn't believe that we're trying to assist those that have been damaged by the spill we invite them to look at the data. When I got involved we had 7 adjusters. We now have more than 1000 adjusters, 170 phone answerers, and it takes six seconds to answer a call. We're not perfect. But we're trying hard to meet the needs of the people of the region. And we're not afraid to write big checks.

Is there a timetable for completing the claims and settlement process?

There's no timetable. As long as the oil spills there will be claims and we'll pay them.

How closely is the Obama administration monitoring the BP settlement and claims process?

It's being handled independent of BP and the government. We make daily reports to the Coast Guard on how many checks have been written, claims filed, phone calls received, and the average time for the pay-outs.

You've emerged as the new face of BP. Who is Darryl Willis?

I'm from New Orleans. I went to college and graduate school there. I went to work for BP 20 years ago as a geophysicist. When I was asked to play a part in the process I was determined to assert myself in how it was handled. I understand the pain and frustration of the spill and how it's going to impact the folks in the Gulf Coast. I wanted to see that it would not be encumbered by bureaucratic red tape and as straightforward as one can make it to insure we got the money in their hands. This was personal to me.

BP has been criticized for being evasive, denying media access, and not transparent. Will you change that?

I will talk with anyone about how we're trying to pay the claims and fix the problem. We at BP realize that this is an unprecedented spill, and we're trying to get lots of things right, and we've also gotten some things wrong. If we don't fix the problem and get all the things that we need to get right then we need to be held accountable. Everyone I know is determined to get it right.