Baseball’s botched communications crisis

A sure sign of spring is (usually) the start of the Major League Baseball season. However, before the current pandemic erupted, a dark, dark, dark cloud lingered and threatened the integrity of the game as much or more then the steroids era of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

And to think, a sound crisis communications reaction could have pacified the situation.

Even most non-baseball fans are aware that the Houston Astros were caught cheating during their world championship season in 2017. To catch you up, the team used technology to steal signs from opposing teams’ catchers and then relayed the signs to their batters, including banging a trash can to alert their hitter which pitch was coming. For the non-baseball fan, it’s a really big advantage to know what’s coming.

The Astros and Major League Baseball both swung and missed at their chances to make the situation better. Both have been totally unprepared to answer questions about the scandal, with Astros owner Jim Crane offering these gems in the team’s first press conference to open Spring Training: “Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game,” and about 60 seconds later, “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.” (It’s kind of reminiscent of Nathan Thurm in the old days of “Saturday Night Live.”) ESPN’s Jeff Passan started his story about the presser with this: “Houston Astros owner Jim Crane’s latest attempt at damage control blew up in spectacular fashion Thursday…The entire charade devolved into a glorious conflagration, Crane’s mouth a veritable fountain of lighter fluid.”

A huge part of crisis communications is working through as many scenarios as possible and predicting what the response might be to the various options of responding. The Astros have come off as tone-deaf, to be nice, acting as if they would’ve won the World Series regardless and that the cheating didn’t help them that much, if at all depending on which member of the organizations you ask. Their “apologies” have fallen short.

Major League Baseball came off just as clueless. Its commissioner riled fans with his reaction to the Astros’ presser and upset even more when he called the World Series trophy “a piece of metal.” Many were calling for the league to vacate the Astros’ title. And many were asking MLB to hold the Astros accountable. When Manfred met the press a second time, the Dallas Morning News’ headline screamed: “Rob Manfred’s latest defense of Astros’ punishment only adds to absurd mess MLB has created.”

What possibly could have been mitigated before Spring Training (which as we know was postponed) devolved into damaging quotes not only from baseball players, but also from the likes of LeBron James, crushing the league for its lack of backbone.

Apologies are hard, and admitting guilt is even harder. Most times, however, that’s an early step to putting an end to a PR crisis. And ensuring that your CEO’s message delivery isn’t described as “a veritable fountain of lighter fluid.”

Sean Ryan

A former print journalist, Sean joined The Hodges Partnership in 2003 and leads Hodges’ media relations team. He manages media relations strategy and helps place client subject matter experts on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and more. Sean regularly helps place op-eds in top-tier papers like the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today.

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