Can a suspended ballplayer teach us about PR?

The most recent wrinkle in the Ryan Braun saga raises some interesting questions for PR professionals about when and how a client can ask forgiveness from key stakeholders.

As a longtime Milwaukee Brewers fan, I have been following closely the story of Ryan Braun, who has gone from hero to villain after denying and then ultimately admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

The most recent wrinkle in this two-year saga raises some interesting questions for PR professionals about when and how a client can ask forgiveness from key stakeholders.

A Milwaukee radio station reported that Braun has begun calling season ticket-holders to apologize for his actions. The team confirms Braun asked for the phone numbers and that once fans get over the shock of who is calling, they are “receptive” and give him credit for calling.

While Braun has made numerous mistakes along the way – most notably lying to and deceiving his supporters -- in making the phone calls, he is heeding one element of good reputation management: focus on your most important stakeholders.

Season ticketholders are the lifeblood of a Major League Baseball team, paying $5,000 to $20,000 per year and committing to 81 games a season. They are to a team what elite flyers are to an airline or a big-box store is to a product manufacturer. The business cannot succeed without those customers. As companies prepare their crisis playbooks, job No. 1 should be assessing and prioritizing audiences. A successful plan should allow a company to quickly gauge stakeholder reaction, create established “owners” for each audience, and allow for quick communication to the most important stakeholders.

Reaching those audiences is paramount, but as Braun will no doubt learn, just saying “I'm sorry” isn't necessarily enough. Among the important considerations:

·      Don't make excuses. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons a company errs, and it is worth pointing out. But protesting too much even as you are apologizing can water down its effectiveness. Braun reportedly told one season ticket-holder that a friend had talked him into taking PEDs. Braun's attempt to shift blame did not win over the fan.

·      Act quickly and with transparency where possible. Crisis management often includes the careful balance of reputation with litigation liability. A company needs to carefully weigh the potential cost of saying too much too soon with the cost of lost reputation if a response is too little too late. Braun did have to wait to release a statement until after MLB finished its investigation of other players. But even then, he chose only a written statement: no cameras and no questions from journalists. His telephoned apologies are now getting only partial credit because many fans are still waiting to hear his answer to more difficult questions.

·      Words and tone matters. Audiences can usually forgive honest mistakes or issues that could not have been prevented.  But when there is culpability, executives cannot always expect to quickly regain trust. Words or tone that rush the process to forgiveness or that are presumptive can easily backfire. There's no doubt Braun's apology statement was well-written and full of contrition. But for many fans and sports commentators, his lack of detail in explaining what he did and why made some of those words hollow. His references to using PEDs for only a “short period of time” because he was dealing with a “nagging injury” raised as many questions as they answered.

Of course, Braun's situation is one that is seldom replicated in the corporate world. A CEO guilty of covering up the truth for so long would probably be out of job, while Braun is contractually protected as a ballplayer. So it will be a unique experience to see when or if his fans come around. No doubt his continued actions on and off the field will have a lot to say about that.

Bill Zucker, is Midwest director for Ketchum. Prior to his careers in journalism and public relations, he worked for three baseball seasons as a food vendor at Milwaukee County Stadium.

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