I love reading the NY TImes, and sometimes check out its Sunday Auto section.
Being a PR guy - one with an affinity for tech and startups – I have been closely tracking the Tesla Motors story (you know, the one about the US-based manufacturer of electrical cars, that has gotten crazy amounts of funding and whose CEO – Elon Musk – previously cashed out at PayPal). There is a dealership in our local mall (yes they sell, or, more accurately, take orders in retail stores) and I have walked in and drooled over the beautiful machines.
When news broke last week about a negative review of the Tesla in the NY times – followed by Tesla Chairman & CEO Elon Musk's now infamous public rebuttal – I dug up my Sunday Times, read the review and fastened my seatbelt for a wild ride and interesting story for this blog.
Interesting, because it forces us to re-examine some commonly held assumptions about PR:
There is no Such Thing as Bad Publicity
I have never been a believer in this idea; please read the Times review, and let me know if you still do. For starters, I really got interested in the topic after seeing a thread on the NY Tech Meetup (NYTM) mailing list, which began with an email titled: Tesla will Lose this Publicity War.
The Times article describes a harrowing ride in sub zero weather by auto reviewer John Broder (I would love to have his job); and how the Tesla seemingly failed to live up to its specs in terms of distance between charges. Ultimately, the car had to (very delicately) be hauled onto a flatbed truck, leaving the reviewer stranded.
It is hard to see how Tesla – a company that already has gotten tons of positive PR and enjoyed great buzz – benefited from the piece.
Don't Pick Fights with Those Who Buy Ink by the Barrel
I cringed when I read Musk's rebuttal; my sympathies tend to lie with tech companies, as these are my clients. But his blog post broke a couple of basic rules of PR – the one above, sure (which I do believe in), and also the rule that says you should not find ways to prolong a crisis.
Elon Musk's rebuttal seemed thin skinned, and made the amazing charge that data pulled from the car afterwards proved that John Broder "worked very hard to force our car to stop running."
Broder responded with his own rebuttal to the Tesla blog post, as reported in Engadget.
The initial NYTM email generated dozens of responses, most of which at first seemed to line up against Tesla. Through the list, I learned of a number of other articles about the brouhaha, in Wired, Atlantic Wire, and Slate.
The last two in particular challenged Elon Musk's claims. It seemed clear that journalists and others were siding with the reviewer,
So Musk picked the wrong battled, prolonged a crisis,and that is the end of the story, right? Not so fast – read on.
There are Courts of Law and Courts of Media – and they Don't Play by the Same Rules
Reporters can weigh a set of facts and write an article that influences public opinion – yet they are not constrained by the same rules as a court of law is. However, It used to be that their words were more or less final; but not any more.
As the discussion progressed on the NYTM mailing list, many seemed to be willing to cut Tesla some slack.
I won't get into all the ins and outs of the technical arguments made by Musk, Broder, NYTMers, other media et al. You can read the stories and decide what you think.
My point is, that the crowd now has a voice, and many ways to be heard.
One of the last NYTM emails I saw cited a Silicon Beat article about how some Tesla owners have joined forces to recreate John Broder's now infamous road trip. The article said:
Tesla’s devout fans have suggested that “broder” become a verb, as
in “to purposely or with willful ignorance run down the battery pack of
an electric vehicle to the point that it no longer moves the vehicle.”
Oh, yea – you can follow their progress on Twitter: @teslaroadtrip progress
So, I ask – did Elon Musk break some basic rules of PR – or are he and Tesla fans tapping some of the new ruies? Was Musk's rebuttal s shrewd defense of the Tesla brand?