Crisis experts chide Astros’ PR strategy
When Houston Astros owner Jim Crane fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow on Jan. 13 for their role in the team’s sign-stealing cheating scandal, he drew some praise for taking swift and decisive action less than an hour after MLB ruled on its investigation.
But the Astros’ subsequent public relations strategy following one of the worst baseball scandals in modern history has received less flattering reviews.
“It seems to be ‘Lie low and hope it goes away,’” said Mark Bernheimer, a former CNN correspondent who is the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, a Los Angeles-based media training and crisis communications agency that has worked with UFC fighters and other sports organizations amid crisis.
A team spokesperson confirmed that the club has “engaged external communications support to help our organization.” Crane said he plans for the team to apologize next month at spring training for engaging in the scheme during their 2017 World Series-winning season (and the 2018 season) only after they “sit in a room and talk about it.” Some crisis management experts say that is problematic because spring training is a few weeks away and that approach risks appearing like the apology is contrived.
“They are not taking any concrete steps to demonstrate any contrition,” said Bernheimer. “In a crisis, timing matters as much as content. For them to let this much time pass before they bother to address it is just a terrible strategy.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred said no players would be suspended for their role in the scandal. Two of the Astros’ stars — Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman — were asked about the matter at the team’s FanFest on Jan. 18, but neither expressed contrition nor regret.
In a crisis, timing matters as much as content. For them to let this much time pass before they bother to address it is just a terrible strategy.
Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who now runs Fleischer Sports Communications — which helps owners, teams, leagues and commissioners handle the press — said the best approach for Astros players is to tell the complete truth. He said Crane’s plan “sounds appropriate until the follow-up questions, ‘What exactly are you apologizing for? Jose, what did you do? Did you get any warning listening to the garbage can of what [pitch] was coming?’ If he says yes, imagine the pummeling that will follow. If he says no, no one will believe him. And if he ducks and dodges, how will that help? That’s why I suspect it will get worse.”
A former federal prosecutor, Ben O’Neil is a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP in Washington, D.C., where part of his duties include helping PR teams craft public responses. He said Crane’s plan does not portend a sincere apology because “it strikes everybody as PR bull. It’s remarkable to me to have the organization take the action that it did — the hard part is getting the team to do what it did, which is to fire people — and then not be prepared to have a strategy going forward.”
Erik Bernstein, president of the Denver-based Bernstein Crisis Management, said the Astros “want people to forget before they come out and apologize, which tells me internally that somebody is struggling big time against apologizing at all. Never, ever, would my advice be to wait that long before apologizing.”
To others, including Danielle Rossen, a 21-year television news executive who is now president of Rossen Media, which specializes in media training and crisis communications, the timing of a team apology is not as important as how it is delivered. “Authenticity is what is going to be most important,” she said. “No one is waiting around for the Astros to make any more big statements — the time that it comes is not going to matter.”
What will matter is whether it’s a consistent organizational message. To that point, Amanda Hill, CEO of Dallas-based Three Box Strategic Communications — whose company has worked with large sports entertainment brands — said it’s critical that organizations have a culture of transparency and honesty established long before a scandal hits.
“The brand is one voice, so if it’s inconsistent you’re less likely to be trusted,” said Hill, speaking in general about best practices. “When people hear variations, or different answers from different people, it shows that the internal culture is not aligned, and that’s a problem.”