Nonpologies and Missed Opportunities: The Damaging Responses to a Crisis
By Sean O’Meara
When Houston Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman put the final period on the final sentence of his apology statement for remarks he made toward three sports journalists in October 2019, he probably thought he’d done a good job.
Taubman probably read the statement back to himself and checked off in his head all the points he wanted to make; including what a great guy Brandon Taubman is (“Those that know me know that I am a progressive and charitable member of the community, and a loving and committed husband and father”) and how the Sports Illustrated report about his behaviour doesn’t reflect that (“the Sports Illustrated article does not reflect who I am or my values”.
Now that the dust has settled on the Houston Astros Brandon Taubman controversy, we’re able to reflect on what team leadership could have done better.
Astros management had already tried to deny the accusations on behalf of Taubman and did what a lot of organizations under fire do; they attempted to muddy the waters with a half-baked public statement, accusing the reporters of ‘fabrication’ in the process. And Taubman’s subsequent ‘apology’ was only necessary because other journalists had corroborated the allegations against him.
That Taubman or indeed the Astros put out a statement with such audacious levels of equivocation is a very bad reflection on their crisis planning. The fact that Taubman ended up getting fired and the Astros ended up apologising for how they handled the scandal, is a bad reflection on the organization’s leadership.
Here’s Taubman’s apology in full.
“This past Saturday, during our clubhouse celebration, I used inappropriate language for which I am deeply sorry and embarrassed. In retrospect, I realized that my comments were unprofessional and inappropriate,”
“My overexuberance in support of a player has been misinterpreted as a demonstration of a regressive attitude about an important social issue. Those that know me know that I am a progressive and charitable member of the community, and a loving and committed husband and father. I hope that those who do not know me understand that the Sports Illustrated article does not reflect who I am or my values. I am sorry if anyone was offended by my actions.”
Taubman’s nonpology did more damage than not saying anything would have done. There’s equivocating, weasly, nonpologies, and there’s whatever this is. Taubman actually manages to weaponise the language of contrition in attack against the journalists, while simultaneously giving himself a glowing character reference; “I am a progressive and charitable member of the community, and a loving and committed husband and father.”
It was no real surprise that it didn’t wash. By apologizing in this manner, Taubman effectively questioned the integrity of the journalists who reported his remarks. Any communications advisor would caution against that course of action. It’s dangerous for a number of reasons, not least because it adds an extra layer of complexity to the situation and provides another thing to apologize for when you’re found out to be wrong. But then, this is exactly what Astros did as an organization when they implied that the journalists were mischief-making with their accusations.
The Astros were the next to find themselves apologizing. But not before they’d fired Taubman. Owner Jim Crane wrote a personal letter to Stephanie Apstein copping to a momentous lapse of judgement.
“On behalf of the entire Astros organization, I want to personally apologize for the statement we issued on Monday October 21st.
“We were wrong and I am sorry that we initially questioned your professionalism. We retract that statement, and I assure you that the Houston Astros will learn from this experience.”
The really frustrating thing here is that the above is an example of a good apology. In The Apology Impulse, a book I co-authored with renowned psychologist Professor Sir Cary Cooper, we examined what makes a good apology and what makes a bad one.
There were abundant examples of the latter of scant examples of the former. Had this apology, with its frank concession of fault, assurances that they will do better and the notable lack of equivocation, been given as we were writing the book, and had it not been given as the humiliating culmination of evasive accountability avoiding behaviour and victim smearing, it would have been a case study for how to say sorry. In other words, had the Astros’ first apology been this frank and direct, they wouldn’t have needed to make multiples, and Taubman may still have had his job.
The Taubman affair is best characterised as a litany of missed opportunities. Taubman had the opportunity to apologize properly for his outburst. He missed it. The Astros had the opportunity to apologize on his behalf. They had the opportunity to retain his services had they managed to contain the fall-out from his original remarks. The only opportunities he grasped with both hands were the opportunities to sack Taubman and the opportunity to withdraw their accusations against the journalists. Neither reflect particularly well on the organization.
Sean O’Meara, co-author of The Apology Impulse: How the Business World Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It, is the founder and director of Essential Content, a communications and public relations consultancy. With more than 15 years of professional experience in corporate communications, O’Meara has worked with organizations including the BBC, Convergys (now Concentrix), and Co-op Bank.