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How is Baseball’s Umpire Gaffe a Lesson in Good Public Relations?

As did many baseball fans, I listened in stunned silence Wednesday night when umpire Jim Joyce blew a call and stole a perfect game from Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga. A perfect game is one of the most rare and difficult achievements in sports – taking place only 20 times in the history of baseball! And Joyce’s blown call was clear to all – even to him, as he admitted later.

You can predict the reaction. After the game, there were calls for Joyce to be fired, suspended, or disciplined in some way. He became the instant personification of evil in Detroit, and the wronged pitcher Galarraga was the instant subject of pity and empathy. For a time, it was reported that Joyce was the number one topic on Twitter. To be honest, I feared for his safety.

But something happened during the next 12 hours. When I drove to work the next morning, all the talk and comments were IN SUPPORT of Joyce! People expressed sympathy for him, admiration, even respect. There was barely any mention of the pitcher-done-wrong. The newspaper story, “Respect overwhelms ump,” went on for a good 20 inches of the outpouring of support Joyce said he received after his blown call. What could possibly have happened overnight that turned public opinion from treating Joyce as villain to near-victim?

He apologized. He held an immediate press conference, and with tears in his eyes and a heartfelt apology, he admitted his error and showed such convincing horror at the consequences and significance of his gaffe, and the damage that he had done to Galarraga’s place in history, that he won the hearts and support of nearly all of baseball. He even hugged Galarraga and asked for his forgiveness.

Was there ever a more clear-cut example of the power of an apology, of the power of clear, immediate and honest communications? I’ve never seen such a 180-degree shift in public opinion occur in such a short amount of time. Simply put, we all make mistakes – people, organizations, companies. But an immediate apology not only “minimizes the news cycle,” it’s good public relations, good character, and good common sense.