Houston Astros commit multiple errors in sign-stealing scandal

The team members and staff, crowned 2017 World Series champs, booted their opportunities to explain and sincerely apologize. Here’s what PR pros say they should have done better.

Astros PR crisis

The Houston Astros may have won the 2017 World Series, but the team lost the public relations ballgame following revelations they used an illegal sign-stealing scheme that season.

Major League Baseball suspended the Astros team manager and general manager and announced other penalties but let the team keep its title. The league did not punish any players who participated in the sign-stealing, including some stars.

Taking the MLB punishment a step further, the Astros fired the team manager and general manager. Though PR crises experts and sports pundits approved that move, they say the Astros committed many errors in their crisis management response.

Much of the criticism focused on the team’s press conference  at the start of spring training. Star players Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve read prepared statements then exited the press conference, leaving Astros owner Jim Crane to field questions from reporters.

“At best, it read as awkward and stilted. At worst, it read … much worse,” Emma Baccellieri writes for Sports Illustrated.

“It’s clear they thought they could offer a perfunctory apology, make it a one-day story, and the world would move on. Not even close,” PR pro Bill Collins writes in The Buffalo News.

Here’s how the Astros could have handled it better, according to PR crisis experts:

  • Prepare thoroughly. Crane seemed unprepared. At several points in the press conference he got caught in basic logic errors, gave muddled answers or contradicted himself. When asked whether the sign-stealing affected the outcome, he said: “This didn’t impact the game. We had a good team. We won the World Series.” Responding to another question, he said: “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game. It’s hard to say if it impacted the game.” Media relations experts typically advise spokespeople to anticipate reporters’ questions, and they conduct training sessions for speakers before important interviews and press conferences.
  • Dress for the occasion. Crane wasn’t properly dressed, says Steve Turner, principal with Solomon Turner PR. Crane wore a collared golf shirt with an Astros logo. A suit and tie would have conveyed formality and seriousness. On the other hand, the casual spring training togs may have been intended to minimize the import of the press conference.
  • Give something new. Crane and the Astros players offered no new information. Instead they repeated the same bullet points that the public already knew. “In addition to this being a waste of time for both their fans and MLB stakeholders, it made it seem as if they had more to hide,” Turner says.
  • Apologize as though you mean it.Crane seemed insincere. Prepared statements from the players seemed remorseful on the surface but were vague and lacked sincere emotions. The situation called for someone true contrition, yet the press conference presentation had “all the emotion of a dial tone,” Anthony D’Angelo, former PRSA chairman, told Sports Illustrated.
  • Take responsibility. Even if he was not involved in the sign stealing, it was a mistake for owner Crane to say he should not be held accountable. “At the very least, he’s got to say, ‘This was an institutional problem, and I own the institution,’” D’Angelo says.
  • Avoid this common blunder. Crane said he was glad to put the controversy behind him and move on. Another mistake. The person under public scrutiny doesn’t decide when to move on. The people who have an interest in the issue decide, D’Angelo says.

A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.

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