The Houston Astros just had a bad weekly.
No, Major League Baseball teams aren't measured by PPM, but the latest results from a well-respected industry poll shows plummeting ratings for a baseball team riding high just a couple years ago. And you might be wondering how this is even possible as we're still in the “off season.”
Pitchers and catchers don't arrive to the Astros' spring training camp – FITTEAM Park in the Palm Beaches – until tomorrow. So, how could the team be having problems now?
If you're not a baseball fan, you may have heard the news that after a thorough investigation (too thorough for some fans), it turns out the Astros were stealing the opposition's signs in 2017. And the story came to light last year.
Sign stealing in baseball is as old as Babe Ruth, but the Astros added a modern techie touch, using a camera system and an Apple Watch to relay the other team's strategy. And then going old school, an Astros' player hit a trash can in the dugout to send the appropriate signal to their batter.
Knowing whether the pitcher is serving up a fastball, slider, a high hard one, or a cutter is like a radio programmer talking to a Nielsen PPM family. It's inside information that can change the outcome of a rating book – or a baseball game.
Did sign-stealing have an effect on the Astros and their opponents during the season in question? Consider that MLB's investigation revealed most of this illegal activity occurred in 2017 – yup, the year the Astros won their first and only World Series, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers for the championship. The city of Houston understandably went nuts, watching their team rise to top of baseball greatness that season. You can imagine how deflating it was for fans and followers when this news broke last month.
And the subsequent punishment from the league was very severe. The Astro's GM Jeff Luhnow and the team's manager, A.J. Hinch were suspended for the coming 2020 season, both of whom apparently knew of this scam. And the team acted swiftly when these suspensions were announced – firing both Luhnow and Hinch. (Two other former Astros – Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora and newly announced New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran exited their respective teams, too.) It's hard to imagine these executives will ever hold these positions again.
And what do Astros fans think?
Even for mediocre teams, hope often springs eternal – especially during Spring Training, of course. But for the Astros, smiley faces will be in short supply this month when the team regathers in Florida.
And just like radio stations, sports team are measured, too – above and beyond their won-loss record, or their attendance stats.
The Morning Consult Brand Intelligence “before & after” data (right) dramatically shows the result of the scandal on perceptions. Like a radio station that loses its popular morning team, the fallout was dramatic – the Astros dropped 12 percentage points, sinking them at the bottom of the January 14-28 rankings, the time period in which the story broke.
A quick scan of the chart says it all about the Astros current perception problems. You don't need Jon Coleman, Mark Ramsey, or Carolyn Gilbert to tell you how bad this looks for a team once flying high. And just like when a radio station loses its valuable image points, its ratings (and sales) head south, the Astros could very likely feel this at the box office, and in incidental measures like the merch sales.
When you compare early January to late January, you see a fair amount of consistency among most teams. Most are up and down just a rank for two, and many are flat. (Note the Detroit Tigers are deservedly second from last in both surveys – without stealing a sign.)
It's not easy to fall from the top 10 to the bottom of the heap in just a few days, but the Astros – at least for now – own a negative net rating – the only team that's underwater. And even as players get ready to head to sunny Florida for the exhibition season, there's no shortage of concern and uncertainty in Astros World.
This story is a reminder of how far and fast it can all go bad, even if you're a responsible, respected, and winning manager, owner, or coach. And because these dire events can happen to everyone, having a plan in place to sort it all out is critically important. We owe it to our companies to learn from the wise moves and the missteps of others by not repeating their mistakes.
So, how have the Astros handled this PR nightmare with their fans and their community – above and beyond firing their two executives? And what can radio station brand, as well as other entertainment companies that interface with consumers and fans, learn from this debacle?
Morning Consult quotes Shavonnah Schreiber, managing director of Houston-based SNR Creative. She says the team hasn't said much since the scandal broke out because it's their style to ensure “that family business stays in the family.”
And not surprisingly, the fallout isn't over – perhaps magnified by the team's silence. Earlier this week, former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, Mike Bolsinger, blames the Astros' sign-stealing scam for submarining his career.
— USA TODAY Sports (@usatodaysports) February 10, 2020
We can expect more stories as this scandal plays out, perhaps amplified by the Astros' silence.
If the team that finally brought a championship to Houston in 2017 can totally fall out of favor – in just a couple days – what does that say about the fair weather fan factor for any brand?
And what are the protocols public relations experts recommend when it all hits the fan?
The Forbes Agency Council – a group of advertising executives – suggests a list of 13 “golden rules of PR crisis management.
They may not apply to all brands, but they clearly represent “best practices” to consult when everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.
Be Proactive, Be Transparent, Be Accountable
Get Ahead Of The Story
Be Ready for Social Media Backlash
Remember To Be Human
First Apologize, Then Take Action
Monitor, Plan And Communicate
Seek first To Understand The Situation
Listen To Your Team First
Develop Strong Organizational Brand Culture
Turn Off The Fan
Avoid Knee-Jerk Reactions
If you have been through a true radio station crisis (and chances are, if you've been in the business for more than a decade, you're raising your hand), you can look back on the situation and this Forbes Council list, and connect a few dots.
Which of these steps were skipped? Which were botched? Which one(s) helped mitigate the crisis? What solutions helped your station regain its equilibrium and get back on track?
On this list, there are three that jumped out at me. The first is the importance of listening to your team. Program directors know (most of us learned the hard way) that what we hear go wrong on the air often has a different explanation when you talk to the person behind the mic. That doesn't mean you're always get to get the straight shot from your people, but they need to be heard. They very likely have the most knowledge about why things went off the rails.
I also connected with the rule that urges us to be human in the face of the crisis. Having empathy for those who may have been aggrieved by a brand or its personnel is key – whether the mess was created by your people or not.
Nicole Rodriques of NRPR Group suggests that after expressing sadness, immediately spring into making things better, and that entails sharing policies that will go into effect to alleviate the situation from occurring again.
And finally, the social media backlash piece – still often an afterthought. Lori Lewis taught me there better be a responsible pair of eyes on social outlets – and not just your pages.
It's important to monitor what people are saying in the social space, and have a plan for when it all goes wrong.
All these PR “golden rules” are worthy of consideration, and even some role-playing with members of the executive team at the next company retreat.
Best of luck to your favorite baseball team this season. Perhaps if the Astros get off to a fast start, all those fair weather fans can turn those frowns upside-down. And remember, “There's no crying in baseball.”
But hope and prayer aren't the least bit strategic. Nor is burying your brand's head in the sand, and hoping it all blows over.
As SNR Creative's Shavonnah Schreiber (pictured left) laments, “I’ve not yet seen anything that I can point to in my mind that shows they are taking full responsibility from a leadership standpoint.”
When the going gets tough, it's time to play a little hardball.
I'll be presenting a special breakout of Techsurvey – a deep dive on Sports Radio fans – at Jason Barrett's great conference in NYC on Thursday, February 27th. Registration info here. Hope to see you there.
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