Sorry (not sorry): The Astros have a billion-dollar PR problem
You run a billion-dollar business. You are the owner of a sports franchise that happens to sit among the top five teams in Major League Baseball, America’s pastime. You have all the resources in the world to bolster your brand image when opportunity allows and to protect it when bad news blows in. Yet, when the proverbial sh*t hit the fan and it was time to step up, you blinked. You did the verbal equivalent of swinging from your heels at high heat and landing on your backside. If this feels like your story, then you must be Jim Crane — owner of the Houston Astros and the current case study in how to blow up your business reputation without really trying.
The Astros, the team at the epicenter of baseball’s latest cheating scandal, have been forced to cut ties with their manager and general manager. Fines have been levied, draft picks have been taken away and questions have been raised about whether the 2017 World Series trophy should be relocated to Chavez Ravine or the Bronx. This write-up isn’t about those issues, but specifically the missteps that Crane made over the last week in his attempt to move past the controversies and reset the narrative around his team as baseball gets set for a new season. Can a billion-dollar business afford such a debacle? The fumbles and bumbles of the Astros’ PR mismanagement should be a lesson to us all. Here are some observations and takeaways:
Don’t issue an apology without accountability. During the first team press conference at the start of spring training, Crane used the opportunity to — in his mind — put the scandal behind the franchise once and for all. “I want to say again how sorry our team is for what happened.” Note, he didn’t say that he was personally sorry. The man or woman at the top of the food chain needs to understand that the buck stops there. To engender empathy, express willingness to take responsibility. During the Q&A, Crane explicitly said, “I don’t think I should be held accountable.” This eight-word gem lit up the baseball Twittersphere and countless sports radio call-in shows.
Using innocent people as human shields is bad form. About six minutes after Crane gave his non-apology comments, the microphone bounced from Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve (two players who benefited from the cheating) into the hands of Dusty Baker, the newly hired manager. Faced with the unenviable task of trying to win games at a fast enough rate to help people forget the scandal, Baker was more or less left to vouch for the character of the organization he just joined. Baker, who has many fans in baseball for his track record of doing things the right way — “old school” in some circles — was put out there as a way of deflecting the negative energy coming at the Astros after the foibles of Crane, Bregman and Altuve. Using innocent parties as human shields has not gone over well of late. Just ask Ken Fisher and the women he pushed to the front of his firm’s charm offensive advertising campaign.
An organization that wants to show it deserves forgiveness needs to show its leadership is committed to change. What Crane did multiple times during his comments and Q&A responses was to deflect as much as possible. Instead of taking responsibility and embracing the implications, Crane kept referring to the MLB investigation instead of talking about what his own in-house efforts uncovered. Instead of looking in the mirror at his own team and doling out punishments and repercussions, he let the MLB-imposed levies stand on their own. MLB suspended his GM and manager, so he did what he had to do — fire them. Note that firing these employees actually protects their future salaries. In a way, letting them stay suspended would have been worse for them financially, unless there was some effort to show that their actions merited a forfeiture of the guarantees in those contracts. An owner who wanted to show remorse and address the need for culture change would have found a way to dispose of one of the core veterans involved in the cheating culture. Instead, he continued to protect the players along the lines of MLB’s punishments.
When apologizing, don’t say, “It wasn’t that bad.” During his press conference, Crane had the gall to claim that “[The cheating] didn’t impact the game.” This begs the obvious question, “Then why all the elaborate shenanigans?” Of course, when pressed on that statement, he said less than two minutes later, “I didn’t say that” … when we all know he did. For companies who want their contrition to be taken seriously, it is incumbent on them to acknowledge their misdeeds in unqualified fashion. Don’t try the playground tactic, “But Johnny did it too. And so did the Red Sox!”
I wish I could tell my children that winners never cheat and cheaters never win, but the 2017 World Series trophy sitting in the case at Astros headquarters in Houston probably will remain there forever, despite enough evidence and admissions that a lot of illicit scheming helped ensure the team had an unfair edge in winning the championship. But, there may be a silver lining in all of this: There is a bright future for any credible PR professional or agency out there who wants to make a living teaching organizations and executives how to say sorry in an effective, endearing and empathy-inducing way.