Beyond PR

Feb 14, 2013

Tesla vs. the New York Times: New-School Crisis Communications on Display

A lot of discussion and PR thought leadership have been focused on managing crises in this age immediate communications and networked audiences.

However, a fascinating situation that’s unfolding right now between the New York Times and Tesla Motors highlights the important opportunity brands have to tell their side of the story immediately and convincingly when they have a dispute with the news coverage, and it sure beats the daylights out of having a correction or clarification printed three days after the fact.    Simply put, brands don’t have to take what they consider to be unfair or biased coverage lying down.

Here’s what’s happening, in the smallest of nutshells.

John Broder of the NYT test drove a Tesla Model S.  In his unfavorable review of the car published last weekend, he detailed a problem-riddled trip and ultimately had to have the car towed when he said it ran out of power.

Tesla Motors responded quickly, charging that the vehicle’s logs proved that Broder had ignored warnings, driving by charging stations, detouring from the prescribed route and driving at excessive speeds.   According to the company, despite Broder’s best efforts, the car never stopped running.

“ When the facts didn’t suit his opinion, he simply changed the facts,” concluded Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a blog post offering a rich rebuttal to the Times story, including electronic log data that specifically contradicts many of Broder’s claims.

Tesla published electronic logs documenting Broder’s speed during the test drive, and called out inconsistencies in his story. (The emphasis on the chart is Tesla’s.)

On Tuesday, Broder published a response in the Wheels section of the Times, refuting Tesla’s claims in detail.

“My account was not a fake,” he wrote. “It happened just the way I described it.”

This story is still developing and doesn’t yet have a conclusion, at least as far as the relationship between the Times and Tesla is concerned. However, in terms of online sentiment, Tesla appears to be winning.

“… Now that every smart company has a regularly updated blog, Elon Musk has 136,000 Twitter followers, etc., brands can speak for themselves very powerfully,”  noted Dan Frommer, in a post on LinkedIn titled “Tesla vs. The New York Times: Everyone’s A Media Company Now.”  “And if the tone is right, they don’t even look lame: Tesla actually looks pretty great right now. The balance of power has shifted.”

Whatever the outcome, this situation leaves in its wake a couple important lessons for PR pros and anyone charged with safeguarding brand reputation.

  • Your brand’s social connections can morph instantly into advocates during crises, especially if the brand is the victim of foul play.  This is one more reason why developing a strong social presence is a good idea.
  • Your publics are perfectly happy to listen to your side of the story, and facts are powerful fuel for your rebuttal.  Get to know your company’s logging and analytics systems, because that data can provide crucial proof for your side of the story.
  • Hone your company’s response clock speed.  Real-time communications require empowerment, fast multimedia support and the swiftest of approvals.

Whether you need to defend your brand against an angry Facebook fan or some wonky coverage in the New York Times, these two simple lessons can turn the tide of a story before it swamps your reputation.

Catch up with the story yourself:

Original NYT Story: Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway

Tesla blog post:  A Most Peculiar Test Drive

NYT “Wheels” response:  The Charges are Flying Over a Test of Tesla’s Charging Network

Updated since original publication:

NYT:  The Tesla Data: What it Says and What it Doesn’t

The NYT Public Editor’s take:  Problems With Precision and Judgment, but Not Integrity, in Tesla Test

The Atlantic Wire: Elon Musk’s Data Doesn’t Back His Claims

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.

If your brand’s crisis communications operations aren’t up to snuff, PR Newswire’s Media Room suite can help you plan ahead for those days you hope you never have, enabling comprehensive preparation and rapid response.

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