Breaking Down the Astros' Latest Public Relations Meltdown

A public relations expert analyzes the Astros' poor effort to apologize for their sign-stealing scheme.
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It’s been more than three weeks since Houston Astros owner Jim Crane first assured the public that his team would apologize for its sign-stealing scandal. Today, at the start of spring training, baseball finally got to see that plan—a combined minute and a half of statements from third baseman Alex Bregman and second baseman José Altuve, who left immediately after, followed by statements from Crane and new skipper Dusty Baker, finished off with a question-and-answer session. At best, it read as awkward and stilted. At worst, it read … much worse.

Of course, this was always going to be a tricky situation to address in a substantial way. At a glance: Fans are frustrated, opposing teams and players are openly mad and additional information has been dripping out at a steady pace to drive consternation all winter. So was this handled egregiously on the Astros' part, or was baseball always going to be left unsatisfied, no matter what was said here? We called a public relations expert to break it down.

There’s a formula for a good organizational apology, says Anthony D’Angelo, who was previously the chair of the Public Relations Society of America and is now the director of the executive master’s program in communications management at Syracuse University. There should be a dedication to giving the truth about what happened; a sincere apology; and an explanation of the next step. Crane’s statement did include some of these pieces, D’Angelo says. But they weren’t presented cohesively, and they certainly weren’t shared with the sort of sincerity that a good executive apology should have.

“What I want to see is someone who is truly contrite and is really fired up about fixing this, about winning back trust,” D’Angelo says, ”And what I saw was a guy reading with all the emotion of a dial tone, a very brief statement, and then handing it off to Dusty Baker.”

The overall tone Crane struck was one that indicated the organization was prepared to move on. That’s not the note he should have hit.

“The fact is that you, as the person on the hot seat right now, don’t get to decide when it’s time to move on. The people who have an interest in the issue decide. You’ve got to move from being the problem to being the problem-solver,” says D’Angelo. “It’s beyond just asking and thanking people for their patience and forgiveness. You’ve got to go into an active mode where you actually earn trust, and that’s hard-earned in a situation like this.”

There were some specific weaknesses that stood out. To a question about his own liability for the situation, Crane gave an answer that read in part, “No, I don’t think I should be held accountable,” a statement that shouldn’t have any place in an apology. “At the very least, he’s got to say, ‘This was an institutional problem, and I own the institution,’ D’Angelo says. And Crane contradicted himself or got caught in basic logic errors on several points: The sign stealing didn’t impact the Astros’ title run, he claimed, but he couldn’t give a straight answer on whether it gave an advantage to their hitters. The players are great guys who “did not receive proper guidance from their leaders,” Crane declared, but he didn’t address the fact that the league report described the scheme as player-driven, or the idea that the players are grown men with responsibility for themselves. “In a situation like this, people are looking for any dissonance at all,” says D’Angelo.

After the press conference, Houston’s clubhouse opened to the media, and several players answered questions with more contrition and candor than had been seen previously. But Crane’s statements hung over it all.

“I think it was a lost opportunity for the ball club to say, look, this was terrible. It was wrong, here’s what went wrong, and why–understanding there are legal aspects of this where perhaps they can’t tell the whole story—but can’t somebody stand up and say, ‘This isn’t what the Houston Astros are all about’?” D’Angelo says. “I just wasn’t hearing enough real energy and commitment to that. Part of that is tone and delivery. You need substance first. But deliver the substance with some sense of real urgency that connotes a commitment.”