OLD Media Moves

Pick your battles, Tesla and New York Times

February 19, 2013

Posted by Adam Levy

The gloves came off last week after the New York Times hammered Tesla Motors’ Model S car in an article.

Tesla Chairman and CEO Elon Musk used data logged by the car to conduct a point-to-point rebuttal of the negative review.

The donnybrook was, if not enjoyable, unusual. Rarely does a CEO go to such lengths to rebut an article. But, this isn’t the first time for Musk who sued the UK TV show “Top Gear” after a segment a couple of years ago.

A couple of lessons for companies and their PR people jumped out at me.

First, do your homework before agreeing to an interview/meeting.

Here’s a snippet from Musk’s response. “We assumed that the reporter would be fair and impartial, as has been our experience with The New York Times, an organization that prides itself on journalistic integrity. As a result, we did not think to read his past articles and were unaware of his outright disdain for electric cars.”

I get the swipe at the reporter, but why would a company not do basic research?  How complicated is it to search for clips to see what this reporter has covered in the past and whether there is a putative bias? If a reporter has even the whiff of an agenda I would advise any of my clients to avoid siting down to chat with him or her, whether on- or off-the-record. And I wouldn’t go out of my way to provide access to the product to him or her either.

Second, reporters should never have an agenda. I’m not suggesting that John Broder had one. He is, in years of reading him, a terrific journalist. But the lesson here is broader than who is right in this circumstance. If you cover a company, you need to have an open mind, and keep it through the course of your coverage.

I recognize that columnists need to opine – that’s what they do.  When I read a car review I want to know if the ride is stiff, or if the motor purrs like a kitten (or whatever cars are supposed to do). But it’s a real disservice to readers if that review is biased by a bad experience in the past or a predetermined opinion. I don’t want your bias to become my bias; I want your informed opinion to set the stage for mine.

Finally, pick your battles. If you do have an agenda, or are you’re a litigious company, you need to check out your target before you engage in battle. I don’t see how either side “wins” here. Musk’s posting appeared pretty damning and then the Times responded methodically to each of his detailed assertions.

I think they both lose. A few months (weeks) from now, I won’t remember the details of the argument – but I’ll think a little less of each side.

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