The Houston Astros Offer Lessons in How Not to Apologize

George Springer

Most PR pros know the fundamentals of apologizing during a crisis. Perhaps our biggest challenge as an industry is communicating that this formula is the only way out of a bad situation. Evidence: The Houston Astros.

Losing the 2019 World Series was the first chapter in a nightmare cheating scandal that spanned much of the baseball off-season for the Astros. This led, albeit slowly, to a February presser, which destroyed what little brand equity that remained in the franchise.

By now you probably know the Astros cheated, using high-tech cameras and buzzers to steal signs. This helped it to a 2017 World Series win and an American League Championship, in 2019. The cheating also contributed to the destruction of several prospective MLB careers.

The team accepted Major League Baseball's (MLB) internal investigation of its cheating, which was issued early in January. Not one active player was named in the nine-page report. The team kept its wins and championship. Team owner Jim Crane was hit with a relatively small fine, but was able to maintain ownership of the team.  Let's move on, no story here, was the message.

Contrast this with the penalty soccer club Manchester City received recently.

Delay Tactics

Instead of addressing the situation, the Astros denied requests for comment across sports media. Its players and owner did not speak publicly, other than impromptu interviews. Crane said he was “not worried." This lack of a cohesive, sincere response led The Wall Street Journal to publish an article demanding answers.

The Press Conference

On Feb. 13, 2020, the team held a press conference, finally. Among a litany of cringe-worthy highlights was owner Crane saying sign stealing didn’t impact the game, then immediately denying he’d said that. Two of the Astros' top players, and users of sign-stealing technology, Alex Bregman and José Altuve, read statements. They lasted a combined 90 seconds; the two left without answering questions.

The difference between 'sorry for my actions' and 'sorry I got caught' was displayed for all. No one at the press conference communicated steps the organization would take to prevent future cheating.

Sports media immediately vilified this overwhelming lack of remorse. Sports Illustrated labeled it a “public relations meltdown.”

A New Version of a Classic Mistake

Organizations often get a chance to come clean and emerge from a crisis scenario with integrity. Often they choose not to do so. Despite countless PR case studies detailing situations where organizations were caught red-handed in nefarious activity, the Astros took a classic ill-advised approach. They denied accountability. Let's move on.

The PR Apology Formula

As legendary basketball coach Dean Smith said, The right way to make a mistake is “recognize it, admit it, learn from it, forget it.” These principles are the core of how organizations should publicly apologize.

Outline What Happened

The purpose of disclosing all the details about what happened in an apology is to make sure you and the public are on the same page. Do not withhold or massage messaging. It will come across as withholding truth and disrespecting the public’s intelligence. Disclose what happened and where things went wrong. Admit that whatever happened was the result of a bad decision. Show that you understand, with perspective, why what you did was wrong.

Accept Responsibility

Showing accountability is the most important part of an apology. The Astros did the exact opposite. Quoting owner Crane: “I don’t think I should be held accountable.”

He needed to apologize for what happened. CEOs rarely want to apologize. Most of the time they categorically deny admitting to any wrongdoing. They believe it could lead to self-incrimination if the matter goes to court.

Thing is, if you schedule a press conference to apologize — apologize. The evidence already is severely stacked against you. It's going to be difficult to deny in court anyhow.

Second, there are ways to sincerely apologize without submitting a guilty plea to legal charges. CEOs can show that as a leader, the buck stops with you to rid the organization of bad actors.

Communicate a Plan  

This is where the Astros failed most directly. The plan for winning back public trust was to move ahead and focus on the 2020 baseball season. Unfortunately, the team skipped over internal disciplinary action and policies to prevent another cheating scandal. To win back the public, you need to illustrate through action that you are sorry for what you did.

The Astros had their chance to admit remorse and accept responsibility. The team passed on it. In the court of public opinion, the Astros must accept whatever penalties they receive.

Dave Dykes is a senior account executive at Bluetext. PRNEWS editor Seth Arenstein contributed to this post.