Tag Archives: credibility battle

Tesla wins–John Broder and I both have black eyes

This is a follow up to my earlier post about Tesla Motor’s CEO Elon Musk and his battle against the New York Times, specifically John Broder and his negative review of the Tesla Model S.  Initially I applauded Musk for violating the sacred rule of “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” believing as I do that the web changes that rule. But, I criticized Musk for his emotional tone and personal attack and believed that Broder’s calm and very factual-sounding response was winning the day and the argument. So did most others it appeared.

But, the facts win out. My main point in the previous post was that these battles always come down to credibility: who can be believed and trusted. I still think Musk was out of line in his tone and approach. He would have been far more credible to be less emotional and just stick to the facts. But, it appears now that the facts have won out.

Here is what NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said:

My own findings are not dissimilar to the reader I quote above, although I do not believe Mr. Broder hoped the drive would end badly. I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it.

Did he use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.

In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation.

While this is quite straightforward, I must say that most of her blog is pretty mealy-mouthed. It attempts to take a middle ground and would have been much better for her to say Broder did not live up to the paper’s high standards of journalistic integrity and we apologize.

As mealy-mouthed as it was, Musk and Tesla are certainly claiming victory and it is right they should. 

Other major news outlets are careful to make a fellow media outlet look bad, but tend to confirm that Broder messed up.

Very important lessons here:

1. If you are going to go after someone who buys ink by the barrel, you better have your facts straight.

2. The natural tendency of the news media is to defend themselves and assume their conclusions are unassailable. Ms Sullivan makes it clear it was the high level of public pressure generated by Mr. Musk’s attacks that prompted her to look carefully into this.

3. Tone matters–I and others gave the win earlier to Broder based on our sense that he was being factual and not emotional while Musk was attacking personally and with emotion.

4. A question remains: did Musk help himself or hurt himself by making such an issue out of this? Now far more people know about the impact of cold weather on Tesla’s performance, about the challenges of not having enough charging stations, and the picture of the car on a tow truck is in far more minds than likely would have been. Would it have been better for him to more quietly make his case on his own website, within the trade publications and to all those interested in his vehicles–quietly undermining the bad review rather than blowing it up into a major controversy. Personally, I think so.

5. But Musk has done much to bury the old saw about those who buy ink by the barrel, and that is the biggest lesson for both professional journalists and those they cover. I suspect anyone else who does a review on Tesla (or any other car for that matter following this) will do a better job of taking notes and being able to defend themselves if they decide to give a bad review. And, that is a good thing.

Elon Musk of Tesla and John Broder of New York Times duking it out over review

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.

Well, it looks like the credibility battle may very well go to Broder and the New York Times. (Dang!)

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.