Astros Whiff in Responding to Exec’s Tirade

Jim Rocco 10.31.19


For any organization, there is of course never a good time for a crisis to erupt. But if you’re a Major League Baseball franchise, the absolute worst time would be right before your team is about to begin play in the World Series. This is precisely the predicament the Houston Astros found themselves in almost two weeks ago.

Here’s a timeline of what happened, with an emphasis on the mistakes the team made, which should be lessons for all crisis communicators.

Saturday, October 19

The Astros became the American League champs by eliminating the Yankees. In the post-game celebration that ensued in the clubhouse, Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman yelled the following, several times, in the direction of three female reporters: “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so [expletive] glad we got Osuna!” The Astros acquired pitcher Roberto Osuna (pictured, right) last year while he was serving a 75-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic-violence policy.

Monday, October 21

One of the reporters who was the target of Taubman’s vitriol, Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein, wrote an article about this incident. Sports Illustrated gave the Astros the opportunity to comment before it published the story, but the team declined. This ill-advised decision set off a sequence of poorly handled communications between the Astros’ PR staff and the media.

Instead of a “no comment,” the Astros should have told SI words to the effect of, “We take accusations like this very seriously and are currently looking further into the matter.” Instead, the team issued its own statement later in the day calling the article “misleading and completely irresponsible” and accused Apstein of attempting to “fabricate a story.”

It seems that, despite more than a few witnesses who corroborated Apstein’s assertions, Taubman convinced Astros upper management that he was only supporting a player and that his comments “were also not directed toward any specific reporters.”

Tuesday, October 22

Sports Illustrated stood behind its story and issued its own unwavering statement, at which time Taubman acknowledged his comments were “unprofessional and inappropriate.” Though this seemed like a step in the right direction, he actually doubled down by adding that his comments were misinterpreted. MLB said it would investigate the incident.

Wednesday, October 23

In his first public comments on the situation, Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow claimed that “we may never know” Taubman’s intent, thereby attempting to reduce it to a he-said-she-said matter.

Thursday, October 24

Despite saying the day before he would “withhold further comment” until MLB concluded its probe, Luhnow announced that Taubman was fired. The Astros also apologized to Apstein, whom, just three days earlier, they falsely accused of fabricating the story.

This sudden turnaround of course raises the question: Where did the Astros go wrong with their initial public statement?

Luhnow acknowledged what was already painfully obvious — the team responded with a classic knee-jerk reaction and had not conducted a proper investigation. Instead of thoroughly examining what transpired that night, the Astros only heard Taubman’s version of the facts as well as only one other witness who was also a team employee. Luhnow appropriately refused to say who in the organization wrote the original statement, but did admit that he saw it before it was released.

Though the Astros’ desire to clear this matter up quickly was understandable, their rush to judgment was inexcusable and costly. The franchise will likely have to re-answer questions of why they signed Osuna in the first place. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said his office is now investigating because of concerns regarding the Astros’ initial statement that accused Sports Illustrated of making the whole thing up.

When issues like these arise in your organization, always keep in mind that, while responding quickly is important, it’s not more important than responding correctly.

Photo Credit: Houston Astros

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