MLB and Ohtani: Building a Crisis and Reputation Plan When in a Pickle

Following the news of Shohei Ohtani’s involvement with an illegal bookmaker in California, baseball is stuck between one of the biggest rocks in the hardest place. Ultimately, through its internal investigation, The MLB may find itself in a position that forces it to choose to suspend and dismiss its biggest star or not discipline him and swiftly lose an abundance of credibility for future disciplinary actions.

While the MLB and Ohtani’s teams work to piece together background stories, release statements and determine the next steps, the collective focus of both major brands should not only be on the crisis at hand but also on their long-term reputations.

Stuck in the ultimate lose-lose, how can the MLB create a reputation plan for a crisis like this? While it focuses on the long term, keeping the short term in mind is critical. What will be the implications of suspending or not suspending Ohtani, and how will it affect MLB's credibility in the future?

Brand reputation management experts recognize that crisis prevention and preparation are often overlooked as critical components of maintaining a positive image. Although many brands or organizations don’t have crisis plans in place, they must quickly take action once the time comes—often before focusing on building or rebuilding their reputation. In the case of Ohtani, the following format should have been followed.

Plan: Get all building blocks together

  1. Gather the facts and assess
  2. Consider company reputation and business/legal impact
  3. Create one narrative and stick to it
  4. Take swift action
  5. Communicate early and often and stay consistent

Once PR teams agree on the necessary planning phases, they can begin strategizing with other key legal and business counsel to weigh the pros and cons of potential actions. The following is where the MLB is currently sitting.

Strategize: Start weighing out options and consider the following:

  1. Risk factors
  2. Impacts on the business
  3. Reputation impacts
  4. Legal issues
  5. Consumer backlash

Ohtani released an official statement denying his involvement in the gambling scandal in an effort to correct various storylines that were released. But this was only after the MLB announced an investigation with the IRS. However, Ohtani’s team waited too long and relinquished all control to the MLB. Now, regardless of what Ohtani’s team says, they’ll never have complete trust from fans and will never regain control.

As the MLB conducts its investigation, it should also plan how to communicate various scenarios that could become reality and anticipate possible backlash. Since these investigations are largely reactionary due to poor storytelling, the league may have to over-explain when the time comes.

Once it is ready, the MLB should:

Execute: Communicate results

  1. Release results
  2. Announce with conviction
  3. Leave no room for questions
  4. Stand behind decision
  5. Distribute across channels

Remember, it’s harder to fix poor storytelling than it is to pause, gather the facts, and focus on how to communicate. The MLB and Ohtani are in a real pickle. The MLB can't underestimate the potential impact of this crisis on its reputation. People are glued to who's lying, so setting the record straight is important but at this point, it's more about where both league and superstar brands go from here.

Ed Moed is CEO of Hot Paper Lantern.