How MiLB Teams Deal With Public Relations Disasters

By now, you’ve probably heard of the Ogden Raptors’ recent PR disaster, in which they attempted to host an Hourglass Appreciation Night. The tagline for the event guaranteed, “gorgeous women whose curves rival those of any stud pitching prospect!” They wanted to push the envelope and appear edgy, but went about it in the wrong way and got burned. Big time.

As I’ve said before, in general, it’s tough to discredit other teams’ efforts because we don’t know their market demands, intricacies, trends, and demographics. That said, there are certain guidelines teams should have. Think of it as a microcosm to the Ten Commandments being applicable to everybody, no matter your background. With social media, mistakes spread like wild fire, so getting in front of a situation as early as possible makes it that much easier to correct.

The Raptor’s particular PR disaster is easy to have foreseen and could have been avoided with some decent sensibility. That’s not always the case, however, as many PR disasters don’t seem like disasters at all the information goes public. That’s also why it’s important to get out ahead of the issue. These are the stakeholders involved and how they react to these situations.

The Stakeholders

Team Management

When any PR issue happens, sponsors and season ticket holders – people and companies who invest time and money into the team – are usually disappointed and question their commitment. This is human nature.

The team’s staff will ultimately suffer because they will look silly in the community, and take away reasons for people to believe in them. Think of it as a relationship. If one person in the relationship does something uncalled for, it is bound to cause some links in the chain to unravel.

As well, those involved in with marketing, operations, or general management may forever be associated with this disaster, and it could follow them around the community.

The MLB Affiliate

While this wasn’t their idea, nor did they probably know about it, their name will still be mentioned alongside the disaster. In the case of the Ogden Raptors, it was the Dodgers, one of MLB’s tent pole franchises, who got pulled in to the mud.

We once had a situation like this in my intern year. The GM wanted to do a fundraiser for Breast Cancer on a Friday and Prostate Cancer on a Sunday, and call it TNA weekend.

Upon hearing this idea and name, the MLB GM promptly told his owner, who then called the MiLB owner, and said if this promotion happens with that name, he would permanently take his players out of the city.

Verbatim. That’s what he said. Needless to say, that plan was cancelled.

MiLB Ownership

They have to hear it from their friends and suffer the community embarrassment. For all the good owners have done in the community, people they have employed, charitable funds they have raised, this is the lead story.

While they may not have had anything to do with it, they will bear the financial brunt should people not want to support them anymore.

Fans are rightfully sensitive around these things, and they might not want to bring their family and kids to the game anymore if it isn’t the right environment.

Sponsors and Season Ticket Holders

These investors put their time, money, and brand with the team. They literally say, “you make us look good, so we will spend money and time with you.” They have a lot to lose because they will look silly giving tickets away to valued clients, staff and people close to their business, and have their name on billboards.

While this is in no way a comparison, a strong example of sponsor reaction can be seen during the Penn State scandal in 2011. Brands couldn’t have their name associated with the school anymore, so many immediately removed their affiliation. This dispersion literally happened in one day. Compare the two pictures below and think of the last time you saw a team backdrop without a corporate logo.

Pre-2011 Scandal. Notice the Sherwin-Williams logo.

Pre-2011 Scandal. Notice the Sherwin-Williams logo.

Post 2011 Scandal. Zero 3rd party logo or affiliation.

Post 2011 Scandal. Zero 3rd party logo or affiliation.


How Disasters Happen

New, Aggressive Agency

This happens all the time with businesses. They hire a new agency to help them with marketing and their image. This agency likes to push the envelope, make a splash, and rationalize their existence. It’s the white-collar version of an MLB GM coming in and ‘putting his stamp on the team’ with a big trade or firing.

The major disconnect here is that the the agency won’t suffer the same PR shame as the team; their name isn’t as prominent. This agency might have run successful campaigns before in different industries and be emboldened to be edgy.

A few years ago, a friend’s team hired a new agency to spruce up their messaging. He stressed to the agency that he wanted a family friendly message, highlighting kids giveaways and special kids pricing.

The agency came back with messaging that had sexual connotation, focused on beer, and the ballpark being a ‘night out for the boys’. I’d never heard him this mad. When he told the agency twice (!) that this wasn’t the proper messaging, the agency replied and said that, “contrary to what you think, we know what we are doing.”

Not surprisingly, the agency was promptly fired.

Bad Advice

My favourite gate giveaway was recommended from a season ticket holder, who pulled me aside during a game to tell me. There are no shortages of ideas, mostly good ones, that come from fans. They are heart of the team, feel like they own a piece of it, and genuinely want to help. While the following expression is in a totally different context, it’s highly applicable. An NFL coach once said that, “a coach who listens to fans ends up sitting with them.”

Not all ideas make holistic business sense. Fans don’t know all sides of the industry and don’t think about all the various touch points of an organization. So while the idea might make sense in theory and discussion, the negatives might vastly outweigh the positives and cause more harm overall than good

Tyrannical Management

Scandals happen when decisions are unilaterally made without consulting other departments. This can occur when the GM or President simply dictates what the team is to do.

As Bill Simmons says, teams need a VP of Common Sense. Any millennial with their ear to the ground on social media or an experienced employee who’s seen edgy campaigns blow up in their face knows the end result of risky messaging. We saw this recently with the controversial and ultimately embarrassing Pepsi commercial. Outsiders could have told you what would happen once it was launched, yet it was still produced.


How to Follow Up the Disaster

The Raptors did a great job of diffusing their disaster, and articulated their recovery steps very well. They know they messed up, made it seem like the idea wasn’t supposed to go public, and their President let it be known that they were sorry.

Obviously, they had creative and a logo done, so their story might not add up entirely, but in any event, their alibi is rational, and when told many times over in the next few days, will make the story fizzle out (whether or it should or not).

In these situations, there are two options: fall on your sword and admit your mistake or double down and put up excuses. The former is predominantly the way to go, because admitting a mistake deflates most animosity. This goes for internal and external discussions.

The staff needs to see genuine remorse from their leader for putting them in a bad situation. Doubling down prolongs the situation and allows media and fans to continue the conversation with second and third follow-up questions. It also makes the team look stubborn, tone deaf, and makes it seem like they’re not remorseful, giving sponsors and fans reason to think they will embarrass them again.

There’s no perfect handbook that will tell you how to avoid these inevitable challenges, but with the right steps and infrastructure, PR disasters can be marginalized and diffused in timely fashion.

Lead Photo: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

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