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Houston Astros Sign Stealing Scandal In Extra Innings As Crisis Communication Errors Pile Up

By Thom Fladung/Hennes Communications

The Houston Astros have now pulled off the rare Triple Crown of mishandled crisis communications: cover up; issue lame apologies; allow the bad news story to keep dripping out, day after day.

This is not a coveted award.

As even the casual baseball fan is acutely aware by now, the Astros – one of the sport’s winningest teams for several seasons – have been caught up in a scandal since Major League Baseball ruled that Houston front office staff, coaches and players participated in an elaborate scheme to steal other teams’ pitching signs.

And it’s been a scandal with seemingly unending new headlines. One of the latest: At the Astros opening game of spring training, fans brought signs expressing their anger and disgust at the cheating. Whereupon, Astros staffers went through the stands confiscating the signs.

So, the Astros responded to protests about their guilt in the sign-stealing scandal by…stealing signs. Cue the scathing social media posts.

What can the Astros do to make it all end? Well, at this point, nothing. At least nothing that will make it end quickly. But they still should do something. And the Astros have to figure out what to do and how to do it in a way that won’t make matters worse.

As we tell clients, you can’t talk your way out of a crisis. You must act your way out by doing the right thing. But then you also must communicate those actions so that the people who care about you will know what you did and, you hope, have at least some of their faith restored.

The Astros have acted. And then managed to almost immediately shoot themselves in the foot.

The organization fired General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch soon after Major League Baseball suspended both for their roles in the scandal. That action was blunted by Luhnow’s claim that he didn’t know about the sign stealing while it was happening on his watch – even as it was rumored across baseball. And then blunted further when Astros owner Jim Crane denied any responsibility and followed that up by saying the sign stealing didn’t actually impact games.

All of which prompted Forbes magazine to label Crane “baseball’s most controversial owner.”

The Astros also decided to trot out some of their star players to apologize a few weeks ago as spring training started. Slate.com described the apologies of Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman as “two minutes of insincere, vague remarks” in a story headlined “Do the Houston Astros Know Why They’re Supposed to Be Sorry?”

The Astros opponents have taken note – and they’re applying both words and action. Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angel widely cited as the best player in baseball and one of the most soft-spoken, broke character to slam the Astros. And as of this writing, Astros batters had been hit by more pitches than any other team this spring training season.

Plenty of observers have weighed in on what the Astros should do now to dig out.

One of our favorite sites for crisis communications is Sorry Works! It’s a nonprofit that focuses on how honesty and disclosure should work in the medical field. The smart folks there weighed in on the Astros. The recommendations included, as others have suggested, taking away the 2017 World Series trophy and player rings, which strikes us as both naïve – they still won it – and very unlikely, as the powerful Major League Baseball Players Association would weigh in on any such attempt. It also is a fact that some of the Astros players – maybe many – weren’t guilty.

But Sorry Works! weighs in with other ideas that seem more than worthy: The guilty players donating their playoff bonus money to youth sports charities and the organization matching that donation with one of its own. And how about the Astros – players and team – producing educational content for youth sports about playing by the rules and hitting the road to provide those lessons in person – in a humble, contrite manner.

We’ll give Sorry Works! the last word on the matter: “The Astros need to forget about words like ‘sorry’ and ‘mistake’ and show real contrition, and then ask for forgiveness. America is a very forgiving country, but you first have to be vulnerable.”

Thom Fladung is now managing partner of Hennes Communications after 33 years in the newspaper business. Contact Thom at [email protected] and check out Hennes at www.crisiscommunications.com


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