Managing Critical Product Reviews: 3 PR Lessons from Tesla’s Charged Showdown with the New York Times

February 21, 2013

Managing Critical Product Reviews: 3 PR Lessons from Tesla's Charged Showdown with the New York Times

How to Manage Critical Product Reviews: 3 PR Lessons from Elon Musk’s Reaction to the New York Times Tesla Review

Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors has found himself embroiled in a war of words with the New York Times over what he alleged is an unfair review of the Tesla Model S.
The original reviewer had wrote a critical review of the car, titled “Stalled on Tesla’s Electric Highway” with a picture of the Tesla Model S on the back of a tow truck. The article essentially claimed the car’s range did not live up to Tesla’s billing, required the author to turn off the car’s heater to save energy, and in fact stranded him with little warning.
Elon Musk quickly retorted on Twitter: “NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn’t actually charge to max & took a long detour.”
The first salvo had been fired, but there was more to come. Musk posted a point by point rebuttal on his blog called  “A Most Peculiar Test Drive” using data from the car itself. He took a very aggressive tone, one that is generally not recommended when dealing with the media. But when you have the public profile of Elon Musk, you can take the bull by the horns so to speak.

Was Musk’s Charged Reaction to the New York Times Tesla Review the Right Response?

Managing Critical Product Reviews: 3 PR Lessons from Tesla's Charged Showdown with the New York Times
Musk laid out a very convincing case and — in the eyes of many — he aggressively defended his company against the apparent charges the NYT reporter had levied. The reporter issued a rebuttal and chalked up the apparent inaccuracies in his article to an honest mistake. The matter was not closed, however, and the NYT Public Editor ended up reviewing the article. She posted her examination of the facts and felt while inaccurate the reporter had not been dishonest.
The response to her article has been less than charitable, especially as she described Musk’s rebuttal as “misleading” in some ways. Given Musk used his car’s data logs to justify his points, it’s hard to dispute his conclusions.
Elon Musk seemingly has accepted the apology via Twitter. From a public relations point of view, it appears he won the battle, so he didn’t see the need to push further.
Clearly Musk’s approach was unique because of who he is. That said, there are some lessons from his approach that we might be able to apply to the B2B space.

3 PR Lessons We Can Learn from Musk’s Approach

  1. Always offer a rebuttal if you feel your product hasn’t received a fair shake. But choose your channels wisely. While Elon Musk was very aggressive in his rebuttal, he used Twitter and his company blog as primary channels in communication. In doing so, he allowed his numerous Twitter followers and fans to spread the word. Clearly, he knew how to harness the power of social media to make sure he was heard. It was a 21st century approach to a 20th century media slam.
  2. Be thorough and rely on data to tell the true story. Musk’s blog post took the NYT article point by point and refuted the author’s conclusions, and backed his own points up with data. The tone was very aggressive and drilled the point home that the reporter was way off base. While it was rather long, it was very thorough and those who took the time to read through it were convinced the NYT had been unfair in their reporting.
  3. Know when to bury the hatchet. Most importantly, Musk knew when to call off the war of words. He clearly had gauged the winds of public opinion and felt his job had been done.

Do you agree with Musk’s handling of the New York Times Tesla review?


Corporate Strategy, Sales Operations

Sudip is in charge of Corporate Strategy, Sales Operations at <a href="">Alegeus Technologies</a>. Previously, he worked at OpenView from 2012 until 2014 with portfolio companies to provide insights on the markets they operate in, their customers, and drive development of business strategies.