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How Not to Confront Bad Publicity

Yes, you want to cut off negative press. But don’t follow the example of Tesla Motors’ CEO.
COLLABORATORS Chris Taylor, Rachel Meranus
A lesson from Tesla's bout with the New York Times in handling bad publicity
photo by Stephen Pace

After the New York Times reported that a long-distance test drive of the Model S — a chic electric-powered car from Tesla Motors — ended when it ran out of juice shy of its destination, Tesla CEO Elon Musk did what any astute public relations expert would do: He confronted the bad press and tried to deflect the damage. But how he confronted it made some observers cringe.

If you didn’t follow the spat in February, here’s a quick recap: The Times published its review, Musk fired back on Twitter that the report was “fake,” and Musk and the paper traded accusatory blog posts.

Musk asserted that Times auto writer John Broder failed to adhere to Tesla’s instructions by taking a two-mile detour and driving above the speed limit, among other transgressions.

Mashable deputy editor Chris Taylor (@FutureBoy) sees these assertions as particularly damaging to Musk’s efforts. Why? Because nobody’s perfect — and Tesla should realize that.

“The more this back-and-forth between the Times and Tesla focuses on the small stuff the writer did outside the scope of the review . . . the more sympathetic the reviewer becomes,” Taylor notes in the editorial “Elon Musk vs. The Times: Why This Can’t End Well for Tesla.” “Who here hasn’t ever broken the speed limit or taken a detour? If the Model S only works if you drive below the speed limit between charging stations, if you have to charge it all the way every time, if you need to follow the advice of Tesla PR reps to the letter at every juncture — whether or not the writer did — then it is a car that is asking for a perfect human to operate it.”

So, what should you do if you find one of your products or services poorly reviewed, especially in a publication as influential as the Times? Taylor, a veteran reviewer himself, offers this advice to Musk:

“Focus instead on putting more reviewers behind the wheel of a Model S. Don’t leave it to one or two lucky journalists; flood the market with reviews. Accept that one or two might have bad experiences. That’s OK. Let them. What matters is making it appear that the Model S is everywhere, on every road, in every publication — not unimpeachable, just impossible to ignore.”



The old adage that “the pen is mightier than the sword” holds true here. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t defend yourself against bad publicity. Just do it with tact, writes Rachel Meranus in the Entrepreneur.com article “Managing Bad Press.” Musk violated this principle when he alleged that the Times review was “fake.” That’s about as ugly an accusation as you can make against a journalist for whom truth is currency.

“Resist the urge to directly accuse the reporter or publication of malicious behavior or bad reporting,” Meranus advises. “This is no time to burn bridges. In the future, you may wish to promote a new product or service, and any relationships you can maintain while simultaneously defending your business will be of value. Stick to the facts, and let them speak for themselves.”

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