3 Strikes Against the Houston Astros
The celebration and fanfare of the 2019 World Series may be settling, but baseball is not out of the headlines yet. While most front offices are deep in preparation mode for winter meetings and offseason signings, the Houston Astros organization is working through a public relations windstorm of chaos involving two large crises that have surfaced over the last two months and are in jeopardy of becoming the experts on crisis mismanagement.
Rewinding to the 2019 playoffs, the Astros had just beat the monstrous Yankees to clinch the American League championship pennant. Champagne was flowing, and the party in the Houston clubhouse was booming. As the team celebrated, the Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman stood in the center of the room and created the perfect storm for a public relations crisis, as reported by Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein:
“More than an hour after José Altuve won the Astros the pennant, the party in the Houston clubhouse still raged. Rightfielder Josh Reddick was crushing vodka Red Bulls. Starter Gerrit Cole smoked a cigar. Shortstop Carlos Correa gazed lovingly at the American League championship trophy.
And in the center of the room, assistant general manager Brandon Taubman turned to a group of three female reporters, including one wearing a purple domestic-violence awareness bracelet, and yelled, half a dozen times, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f—— glad we got Osuna!
The outburst was offensive and frightening enough that another Houston staffer apologized. The Astros declined to comment. They also declined to make Taubman available for an interview.”
In 2018, the Astros star closer Roberto Osuna, then on the Toronto Blue Jays, was arrested on domestic violence charges, eventually leading to a 75-game suspension from MLB for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. Houston traded for him last year when his price was at its lowest.
Once Apstein’s story broke, several other reporters corroborated her account, and within the span of a few hours, the Astros released the following statement:
“The story posted by Sports Illustrated is misleading and completely irresponsible. An Astros player was being asked questions about a difficult outing. Our executive was supporting the player during a difficult time. His comments had everything to do about the game situation that just occurred and nothing else- they were also not directed toward any specific reporters. We are extremely disappointed in Sports Illustrated’s attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist.”
Despite the confirmation from the other reporters in the clubhouse that night, the Astros’ public relations team put out a statement that went against all best crisis communications practices. Instead of thoroughly evaluating the situation and releasing a statement that aided in stabilizing the issue enough to conduct a full investigation, they hastily attacked the media and attempted to discredit the situation all-together. In a scenario shrouded in “he said, she said” back and forths, a short and generic holding statement could have bought the organization enough time to fully look into the claims. Strike 1.
It was only after days of public outcry and the sports media community rallying together that Brandon Taubman and the team owner Jim Crane released statements of their own. Both had very little recognition of personal responsibility, with Taubman’s statement ending with “I am sorry if anyone was offended by my actions.”
By accepting no personal responsibility and placing the blame on the journalist for “feeling offended,” they once again denied and discredited rather than accepting ownership and committing to resolving the issue. Strike 2.
MLB eventually got involved, and Taubman was fired five days after the incident. The Astros organization simply stated “we were wrong” and issued an apology to Apstein and the other involved individuals who “witnessed this incident or were offended by the inappropriate conduct.”
Overall, the Taubman incident serves as a case study for what not to do in a crisis. A simple holding statement coming from a place of truth would have provided the front office enough time to gather information and put a strategic plan in place.
“We are investigating an incident involving assistant general manager Brandon Taubman. We take these claims seriously and are cooperating with Major League Baseball during this time.”
As the Taubman incident was just beginning to dissipate in the media, The Athletic released an exposé regarding the Houston Astros using an illegal video system to steal signs in 2017, the year they won the World Series.
A former pitcher that played on the 2017 World Series team went on record and broke down all of the details on how they disregarded the rules for stealing signs with electronic technology.
Like other cheating scandals in professional sports such as the infamous “Spygate” with the 2007 New England Patriots team, there are plenty of case studies on how not to handle cheating allegations. And, coming off the coattails of their last scandal just last month, the Astros have all eyes on them.
The Astros said in a statement that the team “has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball” and declined additional comment. While this statement would be sufficient for most other teams in this situation, with the black eye that has not yet faded from the previous incident, this would have been an opportune time to provide a brief, compassionate holding statement that controls the narrative, but still recognizes the public distrust. Adding “we take these allegations seriously and will do everything we can on our part to ensure the investigation is thorough” shows empathy and personal responsibility without implicating or admitting guilt, another standard practice that the Houston organization has ignored altogether. Strike 3.
If the Astros decide to take a similar approach to these allegations that they did for the Taubman incident, they will find themselves operating in a reputation deficit with the fans, dignitaries, civic institutions and political leaders they need to bolster them during times of crisis, requiring crisis management practices far more complex than the standard textbook examples you learn in Crisis Communications 101.