Stepping In It: Baseball’s Recent PR Blunders
I’ve worked in baseball for quite a while, and much of my work has been dedicated at least in part to public relations. At the minor league level, PR responsibilities are very different than in the major leagues. Nevertheless, I find myself at times like these shaking my head at several high-profile missteps.
The Boston Red Sox have been embroiled in a PR nightmare since their epic collapse in September. (Type the words “fried chicken and beer” into Google and the top four results are about the Sox.) And it seems with every step, they manage to find another puddle. (Disclaimer: I’ve been a Red Sox fan for nearly 30 years.)
Saturday morning, one sentence from Red Sox owner John Henry gave an interview the tone of defensiveness and arrogance. When asked to explain his comments about Carl Crawford back in October, which has prompted a spring training apology from the owner, Henry said, “I don’t want to go through it again… I explained it and people seem to not want to hear the explanation.”
Would it have been difficult to just say, “I had a misconception about the makeup of our lineup, but our baseball operations team clarified it for me,” or even, “I stay out of baseball decisions and it was a knee-jerk opinion simply colored by the difficult month we went through”? Or he could have shown his support for Crawford by telling the press, “I think the world of Carl and we look forward to him having an excellent season.”
Instead, his answer expressed a defensive contempt for the media that journalists aren’t very fond of. Yes, we know they were digging for some more dirt and hoping Henry would put his foot in his mouth. The Red Sox owner, who is seeing the goodwill earned by two World Series titles after 86 years of pain slowly erode, effectively said to everyone, “Leave me alone!”
Pushing fans and media away with a “this is my team” attitude will alienate Henry and his partners just as much as those two championships endeared him.
Speaking of pushing people away, Josh Hamilton recently told the press, “I don’t feel like I owe the Rangers.” The comment was one of several eye-opening statements made by the former AL MVP about his stalled talks for a contract extension with the Texas Rangers.
Hamilton made headlines three weeks ago when reports surfaced that he was seen drinking at two Dallas-area establishments. For most players this is a non-story, but for a former first-overall draft pick whose substance abuse problems threatened his career, it was bound to be front-page news.
Both the content and the timing of Hamilton’s comments were suspect. He is trying to put the most recent incident behind him, but aggressively suggesting his value to the team over the last few years begs media and fans to examine both sides of the ledger. Right now, the public wants to see a humble man working hard for their favorite team. The organization needs to see a player who understands the damage his latest incident does to both Hamilton and the team, not someone trying to paint over it with past achievements.
What is most troublesome about this is, Hamilton has an agent, so why didn’t he use him? He is going through a difficult period of his own doing, and he is embarking on a contract year. He has a person in his employ who is paid to represent him, especially when the business relationship between the player and organization is strained.
Players too often get suckered by the siren call of the microphones. They fail to realize the value of an agent isn’t always in the negotiations themselves, but in plausible deniability. An agent should be the hard-talking media magnet, the guy who takes the slings and arrows when the player’s stance might be unpopular. When the press shows up for the player’s reaction to his agent’s comments, he can draw inspiration from the clichés listed in Bull Durham: he’s just there to work hard and help the team.
Hamilton pays someone to be the bad, so let him be the bad guy.
Speaking of bad guys, no player has been more demonized in recent months than Ryan Braun. His reputation as a rising star and good guy took the hardest of hits when it was reported that he failed a drug test. The MVP award was being bestowed to a cheater, read the headlines.
The mandatory 50-game suspension was overturned, though, in a decision that crashed down on the baseball world this week. Braun arrived at spring training immediately after the announcement, holding a press conference that many have hailed as a lesson in crisis management and image recovery.
The trouble I have with it all is that the “vindication” Braun experienced is the result of a technicality. A procedural mistake got the positive test tossed out because it opened the door to either tampering with or degradation of the sample.
If this was a victory for anyone, it was for conspiracy theorists everywhere. There are those who believe Braun was let off the hook because he plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, the team formerly owned by commissioner Bud Selig. Others speculate baseball simply couldn’t handle another tarnished MVP.
Major League Baseball, for its part, was furious. It was the first time a player successfully appealed a suspension for performing enhancing drugs. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency called it “a gut-kick to clean athletes.”
Regardless of the arbitration result, a cloud of guilt still hangs over Braun. He continues to express that he has never taken a banned substance, but there has been no explanation as to how exogenous testosterone, or testosterone from outside his body, entered his system. His representatives did a great job of avoiding that point, because it wasn’t necessary to argue their case.
The result is a player who has been proven not guilty, but he is by no means innocent. A cloud will continue to hang over him, even as he does and says all the right things. He has no reason to revisit the issue or argue its details because he was already exonerated by baseball. The court of public opinion is not swayed by technicalities, though.
The commissioner’s office suffered a black eye that won’t heal any time soon, either. Its system was proven faulty, which will cast some doubt on any positive test, at least in the near future. The game once again has to suffer the whispers about whether one of its stars is breaking the rules. And if a perceived “good guy” like Braun can have a positive test, who else out there might as well?
This is the one case where I don’t have any PR advice except this: move on. The commissioner’s office needs to learn from its mistakes and not make them again. The press may ask about the procedure for every positive test in the next few years, and it needs to answer them politely and appropriately. It made a mistake, after all, and getting defensive like Henry will do no good whatsoever.
And Braun just needs to continue trying to be the good guy. He held his press conference, he answered the questions. Eventually, the questions will slow, though they may never stop. For his benefit, I hope he has a good season, because a drop in production will simply fuel discussion that he was an MVP-caliber player only until he was caught cheating.
But sometime soon, another player or executive will put his foot in his mouth, and my PR antennae will go up just as quickly as my fan’s heart sinks.