Houston, We Have a Problem: 3 PR Lessons from the Worst Press Conference in Baseball History
by Nate Wolf and Aidan Curran
by Nate Wolf and Aidan Curran
If you’re looking for a little comedic relief this week, just watch the Houston Astros’ February 12th press conference. Spring Training pressers in the MLB are usually uneventful affairs, but this doozy was a 30-minute disaster-class in how not to respond to a crisis.
Since November, when they were (credibly) accused of electronically spying on opposing catchers’ signs and relaying them to hitters in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Astros have been embroiled in baseball’s largest scandal since the Steroid Era. The controversy, which included a World Series-winning year for the Astros, has resulted in a $5 million fine, lawsuits, forfeited draft picks, and the firing of managers not just in Houston, but also in Boston and New York.
But when it came time to face the press after four months of scrutiny, Astros owner Jim Crane and star players Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman botched it. They issued half-hearted apologies without showing genuine contrition or claiming full responsibility for their actions and gave contradictory answers to reporters’ questions that raised even more questions afterward, which only added to the negative coverage. They expressed a desire to move past the scandal but gave critics no reason to let them off the hook.
It was never going to be good, but it didn’t have to be such a trainwreck. Here are three crisis communications takeaways for PR professionals left scratching their heads after Houston’s damning press conference.
Taking the podium in front of bloodthirsty reporters is tough. That’s why PR experts meticulously train spokespersons to face questions and deliver the news—good, bad, or ugly.
Bregman and Altuve spoke for 40 seconds each and apologized in vague terms for “what happened in 2017.” They then disappeared into the clubhouse, where Houston players provided wildly inconsistent messages once the press descended upon them.
Crane, meanwhile, danced around questions and deferred to the MLB’s report over and over. Journalists wanted clear, honest answers, not a report they’d already read. Was this cheating? “We broke the rules,” he responded. Is your 2018 World Series win tainted? “Everyone’s going to have an opinion on that, and I respect their opinions.” In the presser’s most viral moment, he said “our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game,” before stating less than a minute later, “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.”
That isn’t short-term memory loss; that’s a spokesperson—the spokesperson—who either isn’t delivering the organization’s core message or doesn’t know what the message is. Either way, it’s the kind of cringe-worthy slip-up media training can prevent.
When crisis strikes, an organization should immediately decide on three to four simple, powerful messages acknowledging the issue and explaining the plan to address it. In PR jargon, this “message framework” serves as the reference point for all future outreach: the answers to tough questions at a press conference, the statements from stakeholders, the whole gamut.
But a message is only as strong as the person delivering it. Organizations need to choose their spokespersons carefully, ensure they understand the core messages and grill them with tough questions they can expect to face. When that preparation doesn’t happen, you end up with fiascos like this press conference.
Crane owns the Houston Astros franchise—all $1.8 billion of it. After presiding over the most successful period in Astros history and a smooth transition from the National League to the American League, he would have had to do something truly egregious for the MLB to force him out. But that job security didn’t stop the shipping mogul from deflecting responsibility. He said verbatim, “I don’t think I should be held accountable,” heaping all blame on manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow, who he fired in January.
The core steps to crisis PR are pretty simple: accept blame, apologize, and vow to do better. The Astros didn’t even get step #1 correct. Internally, Crane is signaling to employees that he isn’t prepared to protect them in times of crisis. He instead set the precedent of canning the most obvious scapegoat to insulate himself from scrutiny.
Externally, baseball fans upset over sign-stealing now have even more ammo to use in vilifying the team. Houston had an ethics problem under Crane’s watch, and even with the sign-stealing masterminds gone, he appears uninterested in owning up to that problem, let alone implementing specific safeguards to prevent it from happening again. Instead of winding down a monthslong controversy, his team’s lack of remorse is now a story unto itself.
Even in an industry built on fierce competition, the kind of apologetic statement Crane should have delivered isn’t uncommon. Tiger Woods even publicly confessed to cheating on his wife in 2010. He lost plenty of fans and endorsements in the immediate aftermath but has now staged a late-career resurgence that pundits often frame as a redemption tour. Woods, unlike Crane, showed the long-term impact of real contrition.
For the leader of any major organization that makes a public misstep—that is to say, every organization at some point or another—accepting blame is non-negotiable.
When whispers of the Astros stealing signs became louder in 2019, AJ Hinch emphatically swatted the rumors down and denied any wrongdoing.
“It made me laugh because it’s ridiculous,” said Hinch in an October press conference. “And had I known that it would take something like that to set off the Yankees or any other team, we would have practiced it in spring training… It apparently works, even when it doesn’t happen.”
Part of Houston’s bungling of this situation is their refusal to come clean about the full extent of their sign-stealing operation. Without directives from the top to own up to mistakes, reporters have taken matters into their own hands. Every week, seemingly, the media uncovers a new aspect of the scheme. By getting caught in repeated attempts to cover up what they did, the organization’s reputation continues to suffer, and the public trust in what the organization’s spokespersons say is further eroded.
This week, it was Astros’ shortstop Carlos Correa saying that the reason that Altuve didn’t want his jersey ripped off after hitting a walk-off home run in the 2018 playoffs to send Houston to the World Series was because, a) his wife didn’t want his shirt to come off on national television, and b) he had an unfinished tattoo he didn’t want to show. Many surmise that the real reason was that he had a wire underneath that helped him know what pitch was coming at the plate.
If the organization had come clean from the start and been honest and contrite about what it did, baseball fans would be more inclined to trust such an outlandish reason for a player who sends his team to the World Series not wanting his teammates to rip his jersey off in celebration. They also would’ve been more willing to hear Crane out at his catastrophic press conference.
Instead, media grilled Crane at his presser, Correa’s comments were met with widespread skepticism, and Altuve couldn’t give reporters a straight answer when asked to confirm Correa’s assertion that he didn’t cheat.
At this point, fans and journalists have no reason to trust anything the Astros say—about this or any other ethical issues. Houston has lost its ability as an organization to control the narrative in any way. They will deal with the repercussions of their actions for months, if not years, as a result.
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