Public relations lessons from the Blue Jays’ beer-can throwing incident

The organization took extensive steps to distance itself from its misbehaving fan, but enacting draconian new policies at the park isn’t the answer either

 
Baltimore Orioles outfielder Hyun Soo Kim moves to catch a fly ball as a beer can lands near him on the field on October 4, 2016.

Baltimore Orioles outfielder Hyun Soo Kim moves to catch a fly ball as a beer can lands near him on the field on October 4, 2016. (Mark Blinch/CP)

At a crucial October 4th home game, a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays (my home town team) threw a can of beer that just missed hitting Baltimore Orioles outfielder Hyun Soo Kim. Outrage rightly ensued, as did a fervent attempt to identify the perpetrator—relying solely on grainy video evidence.

The next day, the Blue Jays organization posted the following apology on its Facebook page:

Blue_Jays_apology

Needless to say, the organization was apologizing for something that wasn’t its fault. But it was a necessary public relations move, and probably the right thing to do. (The Blue Jays are owned by Rogers Communications, which also owns Canadian Business.)

The only misstep comes in the 4th paragraph, where the apology turns to the question of changes in policy: “We will…enact heightened security measures and alcohol policies that will ensure the fan experience and safety of everybody involved.”

What’s wrong with that? First, it’s a false promise. Not false in that they won’t enact new measures, but false in thinking that it will “ensure…safety of everybody involved.” No policy (short of shutting down the stadium) can do that.

But the main problem is that it doesn’t make sense to change policies in light of a single, relatively minor incident. Organizations generally need policies in one of two kinds of situations:

1. When a problem is common and persistent. In these cases, numerous small offences add up to a significant problem. (This is why we have anti-littering laws—no single gum-wrapper does much harm, but if everybody littered constantly, our cities would be unliveable.)

2. When even occasional (or single) instances of a particular behaviour are going to result in tragic consequences.

3. When the policy is likely to actually prevent the behaviour in question.

None those applies to the present situation. Beer cans being tossed onto the field is not a common or persistent problem at Blue Jays games. And while being hit in the head by a can could indeed cause substantial harm, and while the statement posted is vague about the policy changes being considered, no plausible alcohol policy is going to be 100% effective in preventing yahoos from occasionally throwing things onto the field in malicious ways. It could happen at a dry stadium (a can of something else could be tossed instead.) It could happen at stadium where beverages are sold only in plastic cups (shoes could be tossed, or umbrellas, or…). And so on.

But my point here isn’t really about baseball. It’s about the nature of policy-making in general. Lawyers are fond of saying that hard cases make bad law. It’s likewise the case that relatively rare, idiotic behaviour makes bad policy.

And oh yeah…LET’S GO BLUE JAYS!

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Interim Director of the Ted Rogers MBA at Ryerson University (one of the Top 10 MBA programs in Canada), and founding co-editor of Business Ethics Highlights.


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