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Blog, Media, Sports

MLB and steroids: A Messaging Issue


I wrote this in January of ’08, right after the Mitchell Report (which we all know was a waste of time and money) was released, for a former employer (of which, I’m not sure it even was published). With new allegations of Alex Rodriguez’ apparent steroid use, I thought Major League Baseball and communications people should read this.

Major League Baseball is in the midst of a public relations nightmare. Last month’s Mitchell Report basically crafted a nonstarter of an issue: Ballplayers are doing ‘stuff’ to enhance their performance. Here’s the story:

1. While steroids have been illegal in the U.S for some time, they were only banned in baseball in 1991. Baseball executives, however, did not test for steroid use until an agreement in 2002 implemented anonymous testing beginning in 2003. If more than 5% of the steroid tests came back positive in ‘03 or ‘04, players would be randomly tested for two years. According to this arrangement, players wouldn’t be punished for testing positive.

2. MLB announced that of 1,438 anonymous tests in 2003, between 5-7% were positive, triggering the start of random testing with penalties in 2004. A first offense led to counseling and a second to a 15-day suspension.

3. MLB executives, notably Commissioner Bud Selig, looked the other way for a really long time. This lack of vision created a whirlwind, and finally the penalties are starting to fit the crime. Baseball has a massive black cloud surrounding its inflated biceps.

Now, you see how easy it is for opinions to be formed based on the presentation of facts (1 and 2). Reading these in that order, it is an easier sell for me to convince someone of my opinion (3). As messaging professionals, we have the power to form opinion. When viewed through a communications lens, an issue (e.g., steroid use in baseball) becomes malleable based on the tactics employed to shape perceptions.

PR pros normally advise clients to focus on bridging and flagging when talking with the media. A third tactic, however, often goes unused but can be argued as the most important in a crisis situation: Reframing.

Bridging is as it sounds: it’s connecting your message (answer) to the question at hand. Flagging is just another term for pointing out what you want the audience to remember. Some key signals to a speaker’s attempts at flagging are: “This is the key point,” “Pay attention, here,” or “This is important.”

A PR consultant of any value will advise a client to bridge one or two points to a question when answering a difficult query. A PR consultant of great use will advise a client to reframe the issue. In other words — and to use Cheneyian logic — do not accept the premise of the question and frame the issue at hand on your own terms.

For example, Barry Bonds (and we’re more likely to see A-Roid answer this way) should have reframed the issue around MLB’s steroid policy — or lack thereof. He would have thereby deflected personal criticism and would have dictated the conversation instead of being its piñata. He also could have reframed the issue with physics — no matter how many steroids a hitter takes, he still needs to have the hand-eye coordination to swing a bat. The steroids don’t help with connecting bat to ball. Whatever they do, steroids will not slow down a ball.

Had Bonds taken a similar approach instead of showing how angry he was, he might have quieted the storm somewhat. Then again, he has a really big head.

When organizations deal in absolutes, their spokespeople can get trapped for wont of a gray area. Look at Rafael Palmeiro. He said to the U.S. Congress—the ONLY place where you do not want to talk in absolutes—”Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period. I do not know how to say it anymore clearly than that. Never.” I don’t know who his PR person was—now fired, surely—but bad advice was given, as it shown not long after that Rafi did take some kind of performance-enhancing drug and thus lied to Congress.

Knowing a client has a dirty secret doesn’t mean you must hide it. If you’re going to deal in absolutes, make certain that everything is on the up and up. The U.S public is forgetful—if not forgiving. And on that note, sometimes you have to step up to the plate and tell the truth.

As communications people, we shape opinions. We are experts who not only craft messages placing our clients in the best plausible light, but also convince media and other key audiences that our client individual or company is the person or group to listen to. Reframing tough issues and staying away from absolutes makes us invaluable to the client because they can stay in the realm of their expertise, appearing ultimately knowledgeable.

And remember, knowing is half the battle.

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.

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