The Houston Astros and crisis communications

The Houston Astros made every mistake in the book.

It’s not great for their fans or their organization, but it does give us a new angle to talk about crisis communications. In this conversation, editorial manager David Shifrin (Colorado Rockies) is joined by associate vice president Tim Stewart (Chicago Cubs) and vice president Steve Patterson (Detroit Tigers) to talk about lessons from a very strange cheating scandal in Major League Baseball and how they apply to healthcare – or any industry, really.

Listen to the podcast, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or read the transcript below.

Read the transcript

David Shifrin: All right. Welcome to High Stakes. I’m David Shifrin, and we’ve had a couple of technical quirks here, but we are ready to talk about a new angle on healthcare crisis communications. Really, we’re coming at it from a different perspective, and then drawing some parallels with healthcare. So, specifically, we’re going to be doing that through baseball and the Houston Astros.

I’m joined by a couple of our very talented high-level staff here at the firm. Tim Stewart, who is actually responsible for this idea, so direct all angry email at him. And also, Steve Patterson, who has a pretty interesting background in crisis communications and journalism.

And since we’re talking about baseball, we need to talk about team loyalties. So, guys, real quick, give a quick update on who you follow, who you support before we get into this whole thing.

Steve Patterson: I grew up in Detroit, and I am a lifelong, and many years suffering, Tigers fan.

Tim Stewart: I’m Tim, I’m a Cubs fan, uh, who have never cheated anything and are impeccable – unimpeachable.

DS: Yeah. And I’m a Rockies fan. And, ownership and the current general manager don’t even have the competence to try to cheat. but be that as it may, we’re here to talk about the Houston Astros.

We’ve been watching this story, and I think it’s fair to say, both as baseball fans and as communications professionals, it’s gone through a lot of changes over the last few weeks, and we’re kind of at a point where we can start to compile what’s happened from that professional standpoint. And, like I said before, draw some parallels to healthcare and just crisis communications in general.

So Tim, tell us what’s going on.

TS: I think it’s important to give a little context to who the Houston Astros are in the grand scheme of the sports landscape over the last, I think, 20 years or so since Moneyball. The analytics revolution has come to baseball and basketball primarily. So, the Astros have sort of been positioned themselves as the vanguard of this movement.

And so what that looked like over the last 10 years was they’d lost a lot, intentionally, to pile up draft picks, and get better players. And they did that, and they picked the right players, and they became a juggernaut in the last four or five years. Over that time, they were also not shy about positioning themselves as the vanguard, basically treating themselves as the smartest people in the room.

And so over the last six months, as they faced a number of public relations crises, they haven’t had any friends backing them up. So we’re here primarily to talk about the cheating scandal, but I think an additional piece of context is, during last year’s World Series, a major storyline was that an Astros’ assistant general manager screamed at some women reporters about how happy he was that the Astros had signed a domestic abuser.

This is the sort of thing that the Astros, well, it was a unique thing all around, but it was not inconsistent with what people thought of the Astros then. So then over the last few months, they’ve been accused of banging trashcans. Steve, maybe you want to give a little bit of color on the current cheating crisis.

SP: Yeah. I think, as simply as it can be put, they found an advantage to utilizing whatever they could. Whether it was noisemakers like trash cans from the outfield or, perhaps, buzzing electronic devices.

TS: There were buzzers. There were definitely buzzers.

DS: Oh, there totally were.

SP: The players on the team certainly took many steps to gain advantages by cheating.

TS: And to bring it into the world that people that listen to this podcast would think about – it came to light through a whistleblower, Mike Fiers, a former pitcher for the Astros, who, in an interview with The Athletic, told them that this was going on at the Astros. So that was in November, and then Major League Baseball launched an internal investigation. Steve, you used to be an investigative reporter. What does internal investigation sound like to you?

SP: Well, it immediately raises eyebrows. Who’s doing the investigation? What sort of ties do they have? What interests do they have in protecting the image of the league and trying to draw attention away from this as that internal investigation was going on? And then some legitimate questions of who’s doing that investigation, and is it really going to be independent, or not?

DS: And that investigation was coming from Major League Baseball headquarters.

TS: Exactly. So Major League Baseball is investigating from the period of time from November to January when they released their findings. As far as we know, the Astros did not do any similar soul searching during that time. They did not do any work to find out what actually had gone on on their end.

And Steve mentioned the strategy involved in an internal investigation. So, January comes, and Major League Baseball suspends the general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and the field manager, AJ Hinch and the Astros, within an hour, fire them in something that seemed like a ham-handed attempt at public relations all around.

It felt like obvious coordinating between Major League Baseball and the owner of the Astros to say, “Look, we took care of it. These were the guys, and they’re done.” That is not how it has been received broadly.

DS: So how has it been received?

SP: There’s no question there was unethical behavior. They cheated. They’ve admitted as such, and they won big. Are those things tied? I think there are certain instances where you can point to, yeah, they absolutely won that game or that series as a result of those advantages.

Careers were ended as a result of some of that, and that investigation did find it was player driven, player executed; yet, no players were punished, only management and leadership. And the thinking was, well, we want to encourage players to come forward if they have concerns in the future. But I think there’s a real disconnect there for the average man, or anybody, when you see one group being punished, but not the other.

TS: You can see where Major League Baseball was trying to go – “Alright, we’ll bang this out in January. We’ll have the suspensions, and then the Astros will fire these guys. By spring training we’ll be fine. This will be a story that happened in the off season.” Well, what actually happened was, all the players from the other teams in baseball have lined up to tee off on the Astros, and that started with their apology tour.

DS: Talk about that, uh, apology, air quotes, tour, spoiler alert, air quotes.

TS: The report came out in January, and the Astros players had like a fan fest where they said nothing and everything kind of built up to the first day of spring training. So, there was a lot of anticipation around, okay, this is going to be where the Astros finally come clean.

And they did not. They gave patently insincere apologies. The owner said it didn’t affect games. Alex Bregman acted like Alex Bregman. It was just a bad scene all around, and they created that by having a vacuum for a month after these findings where everyone built up this anticipation for a big apology that would rip the bandaid off, and it didn’t come.

And then everyone flipped out.

SP: And I think that’s one of the things that, if you look at crisis management 101, the advice is to get in front of it. If you’ve done something wrong, to apologize. To make sure your messaging is consistent, be transparent and demonstrate the commitment to change. Do it through your actions, and you could just sort of slowly see the wheels coming off with each step or each day throughout this process.

TS: Well, I think it’s important – also to your point – their first spring training game, their lineup was a bunch of people who were not on the team in 2017, who no one’s ever heard of, and they were booed the entire game at spring training. February spring training is geriatrics and toddlers. It’s spring break and early bird specials. This is not the diehard – these guys have no idea what they’re in for.

SP: This is not going away.

DS: Okay. So, we’re caught up to right now. Tie all this back into what we’re talking about as crisis communications. I mean, Steve, you already gave a really nice framework for how this applies, but let’s kind of move that into what they should have done, what they could have done, and what anybody listening could take away from this hilarious debacle.

And I will add one more baseball note here, which is that I do find it hilarious, because the victims of all this were the Dodgers in the World Series. So, while it was awful to see a team cheat and win The World Series, to me, again, as a Rockies fan, it is kind of worth it.

TS: I would also double down on that because I have not forgotten the 2008 NLDS where a juiced-up Manny Ramirez ran a ramping over the Cubs. So, I think if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that nobody cares about the Dodgers.

SP: I think with, we were talking about leadership being punished, and I think the idea behind that was to motivate changes to the culture that enabled that, that allowed that to happen. But you’ve got a widespread problem within an organization that’s a sign of greater issues, greater cultural issues.

And I think that’s what we’re seeing play out now. They thought, “okay, let’s get out there and have a quick press conference, say we’re sorry, but then maybe we’re not sorry from some other comments that are being made,” and it’s just been this winding road of an apology tour, and it is a sign that there are some greater problems there.

TS: Yeah. I think that what we’ve seen here, and what is applicable to any organization, is that when you build an organization with, at its roots sort of, arrogance and disdain for other people’s opinions, that will root itself out in a crisis. And also, if you treat people like that, if you act that way when you fall, no one’s going to catch you. So if you haven’t built relationships, people are ready for you to fall, and they’re going to jump all over it.

DS: Because you’re talking about culture, like deep rooted culture. This isn’t just hiring a new communications person, it’s not window dressing.

TS: When you think about the right culture to build and the limits of what happened here, you see a really top-down approach at work here. They thought that, at a really high level, they could kind of just paper over this entire situation.

They didn’t engage any of the impacted audiences. It doesn’t seem like fans were engaged in any sincere way. It’s clear that other players weren’t engaged in any sincere way. So, I think, if you try and torture the metaphor, those are how we engage our stakeholders. How we bring people along in any major change, particularly a difficult crisis provoked one, I think is reflective of an organization’s values.

DS: Steve, what about the timing on this because you guys both mentioned that the Astros moved very quickly. I think, Tim, you said that it came across as, and it probably was, a very highly coordinated announcement between the league and the Astros. So, putting aside the arrogance and the ego and the rotten culture, is it okay to kind of take a breath, even if that means there’s going to be a momentary lull? What does the timeline look like on that?

SP: I think it’s good to take a pause to gather the facts and decide how to appropriately respond.

In this situation, there was, you know, defiance, there was silence, there was a semi-apology surrounded by defiance, again. There was just a lot of inconsistencies in their messaging, and they lost a lot of time to speak up. And as a result, they lost some credibility.

But I think, most significantly, is demonstrating the commitment to change. “I made a mistake. I’ve learned from it. Here’s what I’m doing going forward, and we’re going to be transparent about all of this.” They just didn’t check any of those boxes.

DS: Which is kind of ironic because you said early on, you want to get out ahead of these situations. So that implies moving quickly. But getting out ahead isn’t necessarily moving really fast – it’s moving carefully and appropriately, and if that means taking a pause, then you do it. So, there’s kind of a weird paradox there.

SP: It’s about a six-week period, maybe seven weeks, from the time the first story came out to the time the investigation was over. And certainly, they don’t want to interfere with Major League Baseball’s investigation. They want to try to uphold, even if it’s just for appearance sake, the integrity of that investigation, but you develop that plan, because you know how this is going to end, you know where it’s going. Plan for it. Anticipate the responses from the fans, from the media, from your own fan base questioning things as well. You’re going to have apologists in any organization that’s facing a crisis. But even going beyond that, anticipate those responses, anticipate those questions, get your messaging in line top to bottom, and make sure that everybody’s on the same page and singing from the same hymnbook.

TS: I think it’s also important to think about the fact that there are a number of things that they could have done to mitigate things over the last three months. But to David’s point, this is a culture that was years in the making. So, everything that’s happened recently has just been affirmation, trailing indicators, of the culture that they had already built, to the point where they didn’t think about doing any of these things the right way because they didn’t know how.

DS: So last point or question for me is – we talk a lot at Jarrard about how the narrative around institutions has changed. The trust in institutions has dropped a lot over the last few years, and our industry is beginning to see that with healthcare providers, hospitals starting to come under more scrutiny.

And I think it’s fair to say that there’s a parallel there as well with sports. We see it a lot in the NFL, and we’re seeing it in baseball in a lot of respects.

So talk about the trust that the public, whether the public is the patients or the public is us as baseball fans have or don’t have in these institutions. And what that means for the investigative process and the transparency around this whole thing.

TS: Steve and I have talked about this a little bit, the era that we live in is, people are very distrustful of institutions. There’s a lot of distrust generally across the board. So this is sort of, within baseball, a perfect storm where people have channeled a lot of their feelings about things that are happening in the world onto what is essentially trivial.

It’s people relaying messages from a camera and banging trash cans. But the gall of just the general population, I think is due to the world we live in and a mistrust that anything is as it seems. So, part of the fiction that we all create around sports is that there are rules and there’s a score and there’s clean winners and losers.

It’s also a hyper-competitive environment where people are likely to look for any edge, and that tension I think is true in a lot of life right now. And the Astros have made themselves a convenient target, because the rest of the world is pretty messy.

SP: Major League Baseball, like a lot of health systems, is a private organization. They are under no obligation to be transparent with their internal workings, but they also rely on trust to have people come in those gates each day, each game, and trust that organization and believe in that organization.

And yet, when we talk about that trust, there’s also this media that is constantly prying. I’m sure they thought “this is never going to get out, we don’t need to worry about this.” I assume, I think, that things like this are going to get out. Not that you develop a whole plan around, “Hey, we just cheated and won The World Series. Let’s develop a whole communications plan around that,” but, with any negative or potentially negative things, anticipate where your weaknesses might be, the shortcomings where you’re vulnerable, and begin shaping out a plan, at least, you know, an outline that that can be useful. Because you lose that trust, and that’s the beginning of the downfalls that we’ve seen over the last few weeks.

TS: I think all of this requires a certain level of self-awareness and humbleness among leadership of any organization in order to do the level of reflection that Steve’s talking about, in order to assess the risks and vulnerabilities so that you are ready for these sorts of crises when they arise. Obviously in healthcare, when a crisis arises, it’s generally considerably more serious than banging trashcans. So, it underscores how incumbent it is on our leaders to do that reflection and be ready.

SP: One thing, one final point that I’ll make on this – I saw a survey last week where it said 94% of those surveyed say, the players who broke the rules should be punished, but only 48% of people in that survey thought that, by punishing the leaders, it would result in changed player behavior. So that gets you back to the thing that we talked about earlier – culture.

You created a culture there that enabled cheating. I think the only hope is that by punishing leadership, you’re going to motivate the changes that are necessary to change that culture.

DS: Great. We’ll leave it there. Thanks guys. Enjoy spring training, and we’ll see how all this plays out over the next few months.

David Shifrin