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Got Crisis? No Kidding. Now What?

Posted on 1 May, 2009 at 12:00

Maybe you were surprised to hear that baseball star Manny Ramirez got caught using performance-enhancing drugs. But if you’re the Los Angeles Dodgers, or any other sports franchise, you have to be ready for this news. Organizations don’t have the luxury of being surprised by a crisis.

How ready should a baseball team be to a drug suspension? Really ready! Ramirez is the 26th player caught using banned drugs. Seventeen of the 30 major league teams have had a player suspended for drugs. For the other 13 teams not implicated, they would be foolish to “hope” their players are clean. They must have a crisis communications plan in place to protect their trust among fans and corporate sponsors.

In the Ramirez case, it is clear the information was disseminated to the public strategically and in phases by each stakeholder. This strategy kept the media properly “fed.” In doing so, baseball controlled the message and the media had fresh information to update all day.

Here’s the timeline of how the news was rolled out to the public on Thursday May 7th.

12:30am PST: Dodgers owner Frank McCourt calls General Manager Ned Colletti and Manager Joe Torre with the news.

12:08pm EST: Major League Baseball issues this 2-sentence news release: “The Office of the Commissioner of Baseball announced today that outfielder Manny Ramirez of the Los Angeles Dodgers has been suspended for 50 games for a violation of Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. The suspension of Ramirez is effective immediately.

1:03pm EST: Manny’s explanation and crucial early apology are released, interestingly, by stakeholder #2, the player’s union and not the team.

      “...I saw a physician for a personal health issue...he gave me a medication,     not a steroid, which he thought was okay…I’ve taken and passed about 15 drug tests over the past five years. I want to apologize (to the Dodger organization) and to the Dodger fans…I’m sorry....”

The union’s final line in its news release begins the message of support for Ramirez, a key ingredient in leading positive public sentiment. “The Players Association stands behind Manny and will continue to support him in any way we can.”

4:24 pm EST: The Dodgers finally chime in, 13 hours after its owner shared the news with its key people, by issuing their own 2-sentence statement by Dodgers CEO Jamie McCourt.

     "We share the disappointment felt by our fans, our players, and every member of our organization. We support the policies of Major League Baseball, and we will welcome Manny back upon his return."

For the second time, Ramirez is shown support, first from the union and now by the team. The Dodgers, while the last of the three key stakeholders to comment, will be mainly responsible for the messaging from this point forward.

It’s now after 7pm Eastern time as Torre and Colletti address the team before afternoon batting practice in Los Angeles. Then they faced the media to share their sadness and support for Ramirez. Colletti said he felt "sick" and "saddened" when he heard the news, but gave Ramirez credit.

    "Had he dismissed it or acted like it was somebody else's fault, I'd have a hard time with it. He took ownership of what transpired. That speaks to the man.”

Torre, who spoke to Ramirez twice by now, shared how Ramirez was feeling and then voiced support for his star player.

    "The toughest thing for Manny is how he disappointed everybody. He loves it here and the fans got turned on by him. His personality matches well here. He was devastated.”

And Manny’s teammates? Right on message when catcher Russell Martin said he "still loves the person."

In the days ahead, the controversy continued to play out in public and private. Ramirez met with team owner McCourt to apologize face to face. McCourt spoke directly with fans when he sat in on a Dodgers telecast with announcer Vin Scully.

The team didn’t shy away from the crisis, nor could it. In the days to follow, Torre continued to voice hope that Ramirez would soon meet with players, a story visible on the team’s web site even days later. The successful communications response diverted attention away from the team: should the Dodgers have known about Ramirez’s drug use before they signed him to a $25 million contract in spring training? It’s the same time period Ramirez tested positive for drugs!

What all the apologies, forgiveness and support accomplished was a path for Ramirez to return to the team on July 3rd, in time to power the Dodgers back into post-season play. After all, it’s also about money. So expect the team to keep to its promotional schedule and the Manny Bobblehead event July 22nd. 

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