The hits keep coming—but not the right kind. Major League Baseball’s reputation is nearing an all-time low. Clouded by a cheating scandal, unpopular changes to longstanding rules and an impending players strike, it seems anything MLB commissioner Rob Manfred tries ends up fired back at him with the exit velocity of a comebacker from a prolific slugger.
Mention the word ‘baseball’ to anyone in 2020, avid fan or not, and it’s likely you will be pulled into a conversation about baseball’s most infamous moments—cheating, steroids, betting on the game and, if you’re lucky, the 1919 Chicago Black Sox.
So how did we get here? Diving into the PR crisis MLB and the Houston Astros are attempting to navigate, it would seem both organizations have done mostly everything wrong from a crisis communications standpoint.
An Initial Hand-Slap
Following one of the most egregious, unprecedented and heinous cheating schemes in the history of the sport, MLB failed to issue what many of its constituents deem a harsh enough punishment to the responsible parties. Adding to the problem, players and front office staffers on the Astros were largely defensive and unapologetic in the immediate aftermath of the scandal going public. This lack of remorse sent a message that the Astros as an organization “got away with it.”
A Secret Apology
Months later, ahead of Spring Training, Astros owner Jim Crane sent a letter to his season ticket holders, essentially taking full responsibility for the cheating scandal. That’s the same Jim Crane who publicly stated just weeks before at a national press conference he shouldn’t be held accountable for the scandal and cheating wasn’t the reason his team won the 2017 World Series.
This is an interesting case study for crisis communicators and it begs the question: Why wasn’t this the public statement when Crane addressed the media earlier this month? This level of sincerity and transparency on the national level would have been a great start to repairing the team’s tainted image. Instead, when given the national platform, Crane sent a defensive message that further turned the public against him and his team. Also, since Crane spoke defensively in-person and apologetically in a letter, the public is led to assume this letter was a result of his PR team and not directly from Crane. As a result, nearly everyone within the game of baseball remains outraged.
What Could Have Been
There’s no getting around the fact that the Houston Astros cheating scandal would have caused irreparable reputation damage regardless of how MLB handled it. However, MLB missed a chance to send a clear message (literally) to constituents that it cares about the sport as much as they do, by dragging its feet on a statement and issuing a relatively weak punishment. From the Astros perspective, admitting fault and apologizing would have gone a long way to reversing the consequences of their previous actions. Instead, it seems Astros ownership still hasn’t learned a lesson, by burying the sincerest apology we’ve yet seen in a mailing intended to sell seats to season-ticket holders (the demographic least likely to take exception to the scandal).
If MLB and the Houston Astros had taken greater genuine ownership of their errors as soon as the story broke, the reputation damage suffered would have been far less severe and we could get back to the allure of America’s greatest pastime.