San Diego Padres Commit PR Error in Response to Gay Men’s Chorus

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There have been several seasons where the San Diego Padres have been a good baseball team. Founded in 1969, the club has managed 14 winning seasons and captured the National League pennant twice.

Still, reputations die hard. The Padres, who once played in embarrassing-looking, chocolate-brown uniforms, did their brand little good over the weekend, botching an ostensibly positive show of diversity. The incident contains a plethora of PR lessons.

The team invited the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus (SDGMC) to sing the National Anthem before Saturday's (May 21) game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, with a near-capacity 40K people in the seats. Well, sing isn’t quite correct. The men were invited to lip sync along with a prerecorded version the group had made, according to the New York Times.

Unfortunately, when show time arrived it was a case of Francis Scott a bit off Key. Staff overseeing audio at Petco Park pushed a button that emitted a recording of a female voice rendering the song. Instead of quickly stopping the recording, the female's rendition of the song was allowed to finish. The 100 male chorus members stood mortified in centerfield.

As the embarrassed chorus left the field it was treated to more than a bit of teasing from patrons in the stands. Bob Lehman, the SDGMC’s executive director, summed up the cleanest of the comments as a predictable, “You guys sing like a girl,” the Times reported.

Here’s where PR comes in. The Padres tweeted a brief statement Saturday night saying it regretted the error. Unfortunately that’s about all it said. The number of questions it left unanswered was bigger than a no-hitter in the seventh game of the World Series. (Incidentally, a Padres pitcher has never thrown a no-hitter and the team has failed to win a World Series.)

But we digress. How could a professional organization commit such a mistake? Had a malicious employee played the female’s rendition intentionally? Perhaps this was someone's idea of a joke? And when the mistake was detected, why didn’t a supervisor  order the “stop” button to be pressed? There were 100 singers on the field. They could have sung the National Anthem after all.

Unfortunately, the Padres’ terse statement addressed none of these questions. Further, several media calls to the team Saturday night were met with the dreaded “No comment.”

PR pros can guess what happened after that. In the absence of an official response to such questions, the rumor mill revved up with gusto.  The regular tech person had been in a car accident and missed the game, was one that caught fire. Needless to say, the entire sorry incident went national. Yet another bit of fuel to augment the Padres' reputation for ineptitude, warranted or not.

Then the story veered. The rumor mill said the Padres pressured chorus members to buy tickets to the game even though several of them said they didn’t want to stay. A bit later word was that the policy was pulled just 24 hours before the game. Still, the damage was done.

Finally, Sunday, the Padres issued a more complete statement, noting “an internal investigation” had uncovered no malice on anyone's part. In addition, the statement said “a third-party contractor” had lost its contract over the incident and a Padres employee who was supposed to oversee the programming was “disciplined.” And, yes, the regular technician had been in a car accident and a substitute was in charge, the Times reported.

“Don't let excellence be the enemy of the good,” the aphorism goes. The PR equivalent: Don’t wait to have full and complete information before issuing a response when an issue has the potential to become bigger. The San Diego Padres learned that the hard way Saturday night.

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein