A lesson in ‘spin’

December 15, 2007 | WNST Interns

In the wake of the Mitchell report on steroid use in Major League Baseball, I thought it might be appropriate to consider the public relations spin that has been in process since the document’s Thursday release.

Between stints in newspapers and publishing, I spent 10 years as a media relations executive, public relations writer and interviewing coach in the health care and higher education arenas. For that reason, I look a little differently at the aftermath.

In crisis communications — i.e., when something in your organization goes wrong (especially if you’re to blame), the s— hits the fan and you know people are gonna come looking for responses — there are several accepted steps in the response protocol:

1. Acknowledge your mistake.

2. Accept the blame.

3. Explain how the mistake happened.

4. Tell how you will act to make sure it never happens again.

5. Apologize to your constituency, reinforcing the fact that you’re culpable for the mistake/error.

6. If any confusion exists, repeat steps 1-5.

With the possible exception of a couple of Orioles (one past, one present) and journeyman backup catcher Gary Bennett — who told The Washington Post, "I can only speak for myself. It’s the truth, so I thought I should say so." — no one seems to have grasped the obvious.

Baseball fans are infinitely forgiving. The White (er, Black) Sox throw the 1919 series, are banned, then become cult heros and movie fodder. Baseball keeps African Americans out of the game until the early 1950s, and now we laud the game for its diversity. Work stoppages? We’ll come back in droves when the game is resumed. Cancel a World Series in 1994? It’s OK, we’ll focus on Cal Ripken’s pursuit of the ironman record, then the McGwire/Sosa chase of Roger Maris’ hallowed 61* mark. It’s almost like when you slap a baseball fan across the face, he asks for another whack. Thank you, sir, may I have another?

So pay close attention to the mumblings and rumblings that will follow in the wake of Mitchell’s report. Roger Clemens’ attorney denies that his client should be connected to the report, pointing out that Roger passed all tests administered. He fails to note, however, that tests can be beaten, that players sometimes have advanced knowledge of when they’ll be tested (until the most recent regimen of post-Congressional follies testing) and that not being caught doesn’t prove you never engaged in prohibited behaviors.

Funny, when David Justice blares out that he wants Clemens and others to take the report to task no one notices that he’s merely shifting the focus elsewhere. Why doesn’t Justice confront the accusations against himself in a forceful manner?

The saddest part of the post-Mitchell madness is that we’ve introduced another word into the vocabulary, one that retains an Orioles connection to this forgettable era of performance enhancing substances. Now, you can "Bigbie" a friend, of be "Bigbied" by a pal. Larry Bigbie, probably fearing for his own livelihood before he high-tailed it to Japan for the upcoming season, threw ex-O’s teammate Brian Roberts (and former minor-league next-locker-neighbor Jack Cust) under the proverbial bus, offering Mitchell uncorroborated, second-hand, heresay accounts of alleged use of banned substances. Guess that means Bigbie won’t be walking around his former Brewer’s Hill haunts like a king anytime soon.

Yes, a 409-page report with a lot of supporting photocopies of checks and delivery slips takes a while to digest. But once that process is over, then public hue and cry usually follow. In this case, I expected a lot more condemnations, denials and criticism.

Instead, we’ve gotten David Segui — who replaces Kevin Bacon in the multiple-degrees version of baseball’s steroid saga (I can connect player A to steroids in x steps, and they all end with Segui) — standing up for Roberts, saying, essentially, that Bigbie threw him to the wolves (and, that Segui’s then-pre-teen son, and not Roberts, lunched with Bigbie, Segui and the New York Mets clubhouse guy who was the major supplier, but that’s another whole rant in the making).

Segui stood up, took his own medicine (after taking some banned substances) and acknowledged his behavior. Like him or not, Jay Gibbons faced the music and accepted his punishment. Maybe Gibbons saw the debacle that was Rafael Palmeiro and decided he didn’t want that to be people’s lasting memory of him. A few of the players involved in this sordid mess understand how to react. The others? Maybe we’ll find, 20 years and who knows how many baseball scandals from now, that steroids and HGH have an effect on both short- and long-term memory.