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Cheaters Never Lose, Part 4: How NOT to Apologise

Even though the MLB’s weak punishment called the League’s credibility into question, many believed that the American public would eventually move on. With the 24-hour news cycle, it is not uncommon for a massive controversy to blow over pretty quickly. Just look at President Trump; no matter your political leanings, you have to admit he and the media tend to move on pretty quickly from any controversy surrounding him. Plus, the American public has a demonstrated history of forgiving public figures for their past transgressions, especially when it comes to athletes. Ryan Lochte, for example, was on Dancing with the Stars mere weeks after he embarrassed the US in Rio de Janeiro by falsifying a story about getting robbed by Brazilian police officers. The public has welcomed Tiger Woods back with open arms after his addiction issues. Countless athletes have managed to gain public forgiveness and their stardom has been maintained or has even continued to rise after their public disgrace.

But a very necessary step in this process is a sincere, humble apology. It is so important that there are even public relations consultants that specialise in apologies. For any public apology, there needs to be a balance of admission, sincerity, self-reflection, and a healthy dose of contrition. Without these elements, a weak apology can throw oil on the fire. On February 13, the owner of the Astros, Jim Crane, decided that the fire around the scandal was getting too small for his liking.

During the press conference, Crane stated “Our opinion is that [sign-stealing] didn’t impact the game.” When pressed about exactly what he meant by that, Crane said “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game”. This exchange happened within 60 seconds. Moreover, it didn’t help when the Carlos Correa, a star player for the Astros, later said that “It was definitely an advantage”. It also didn’t help that everyone with even the slightest knowledge of the sport knows agrees with Correa. What’s more, Crane repeatedly pointed to the MLB’s report as proof that the team, and especially Crane himself, was not guilty of wrongdoing. There was clearly no remorse on his part. It turns out that defiant billionaires are not very relatable for the general public, so the disastrous “apology” has dominated the sports news cycles since. If I were a PR professional trying to demonstrate to a client how not to apologise, I would simply play the Astros’ February 13 press conference.

How to Apologise Properly

As we have seen with the Astros, a bad apology can make any situation worse. If your organisation is in a situation in which it needs to issue an apology, follow the Harvard Business Review’s advice and focus on who, what, where, when, and how. To see the formula in action, let’s review how well the Astros followed the Review’s formula.

Who – the person making the apology needs to be a senior leader. In this case, the owner of the Astros made the apology. The Astros did this correctly.

What – the substance of the apology has to have three elements: candour, remorse, and a commitment to change. The Astros failed spectacularly here. Jim Crane was not direct and he showed very little remorse when he said the sign-stealing had no impact on the game. Of course, there would be change, there would be no more blatant camera/monitor-based cheating, but this change only came because they got caught.

Where – the Review recommends avoiding uncontrolled environments. For that reason, it recommends issuing written or videotaped statements; it warns against the risks of live appearances. So, the Astros did not make the best decision to put the owner and players in a press conference situation in which questions and follow-up questions could be asked. They were asking for trouble, and they got it.

When – the best apologies are quick. The Astros’ apology came only weeks after the MLB released its report. It should have come much earlier.

How — the best apologies are delivered with informal language, not stilted legalese, to add a personal touch. Crane absolutely added that personal touch, but the problem is that he was not a sympathetic person.

They say that cheaters never win. That’s a lie.

In the time since the MLB’s report came out, more and more of the most influential people in the history of the sport have made their opinions known; they think it is ridiculous that no players were punished. These legends, like Hank Aaron, are widely respected American heroes, and their opinions are especially weighty in baseball. Thus, the idea of taking away the Astros’ title has picked up real steam. In response, the MLB’s commissioner said the following:

“The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act. People will always know something was different about the 2017 season, and whether we made that decision right or wrong, we undertook a thorough investigation, and had the intestinal fortitude to share the results of the investigation, even when those results were not very pretty”.

The commissioner of the league said that the championship trophy was “a piece of metal” and that the league essentially deserved praise for releasing their report. They could not be more tone-deaf, and it seems like no one is really sorry. The Astros are not really sorry, just sorry they got caught. The MLB is not sorry, they are just sorry that they are being criticised for mishandling the entire process. My greatest sympathies go to the fans of baseball. Even if the real cheaters did not lose much, everybody else did.

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Cheaters Never Lose, Part 3: A Slap on the Wrist