This is sort of like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Not a pleasant thing to watch, but hard to take your eyes off of it.
For those unaware: NYT Broder took Tesla’s much-touted electric car for a test drive and ran it out of juice. Had to be towed. Wrote a pretty nasty review. Musk (a celebrity entrepreneur) CEO of Tesla who had courted the review responded on Twitter by calling the review a fake. Strong words. He presented evidence that Broder did not follow the instructions and mis-reported the ride.
OK, a classic. The review is powerful–in this case, powerful bad for Tesla. But who got it right? And was Musk smart in challenging the paper–you know the old saw: never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.
Well, without looking at it, I was pulling mightily for Musk. The press does get it wrong more than occasionally, and that old saw about ink by the barrel has been put out to pasture. Because anyone with a smart phone and Twitter account has the power of the biggest press in the world.
Above all, this little train wreck demonstrates one fundamental truth of all controversies being played out in the public: it’s about credibility. It’s about telling the truth. It’s about honesty, transparency, full disclosure. When one says right and the other says wrong, usually someone is going to end up looking bad.
Broder, now under an attack from Musk that could be as damaging to him and his reputation as a journalist as his negative review was to Tesla, responded with just the right tone, and with clarity and honesty (it seems anyway). Musk, it appears, is continuing to accuse Broder of falsifying the information, providing charts to back up his claims, and leveling some pretty nasty personal attacks on Broder.
What does all this mean for crisis communication.
I think most in public relations would take from this the lesson that it is still pretty foolish to attack a reporter (especially from a publication that buys as much ink as the NYT) for a bad review–as it definitely draws attention to the review.
I still believe if the reporter got it wrong, seriously wrong, undeniably provably wrong, that it is a good thing to make a lot of noise about it. But, note the caveat. I’m not sure yet how this will play out. Broder may indeed have not been fully honest in the review and in his explanation (there are some questions like–did you really pick up your brother in Manhattan and give him a ride and did this play into your loss of battery power). But I think Musk did not pass the undeniably provably wrong test.
These battles are about credibility. Trust measures show that both CEOs and reporters have very little initial credibility–but the edge would go to the reporter. So the CEO or accuser of bad reporting had better be on very very solid ground when making big accusations.
One other thing that bothers me–Musk’s tone. Broder’s tone in contrast is quiet, straightforward, non-emotional. That is so important in credibility. Musk’s tone is that of an aggrieved victim–angry, emotional, over the top in personal attacks. Even if he is right, he would be so much more credible with a less emotional tone. There is a time for righteous indignation, but damn, you better be righteous.