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Gini Dietrich

The Risk of Earned Media without a Communications Professional

By: Gini Dietrich | March 11, 2013 | 
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The Risk of Earned Media without a Communications ProfessionalElon Musk is a very smart man.

After all, he co-founded PayPal and then took that money and founded SpaceX (a company designed to get man on Mars, where he wants to die) and co-founded Tesla Motors (a company designed to make really fast, really awesome, really beautiful, really expensive electric cars).

He’s enjoyed a pretty admirable reputation. Everything he touches seems to turn to gold. Heck, he’s only a few years older than me and he’s a self-made gazillionnaire (jerk). But I have one thing he doesn’t have: Communication skills.

Enter the New York Times

Last month, New York Times reporter John Broder took the electric Tesla Model S Sedan for a test drive along the newly electrified stretch of I-95 on the east coast. The electric-car manufacturer helped put charging points into place at service stations at 200 mile intervals along the freeway.

Broder wrote in his review about the car, “That is well within the Model S’s 265-mile estimated range, as rated by the Environmental Protection Agency, for the version with an 85 kilowatt-hour battery that I drove – and even more comfortably within Tesla’s claim of 300 miles of range under idea conditions. Of course, mileage my vary.”

So far, so good. Broder has the information he needs from Tesla. The company’s messaging is accurate, the charging stations are close enough together, and he’s ready to take his drive. He goes on to compliment how gorgeous the car is and how much he likes the Google-driven navigation system. He talks about all of the awards the car has won and how much fun he expects it will be to drive. All of this, of course, based on what the car company has told him.

And then he experiences the car himself. He starts off on a nice drive on a 30 degree day and makes it to the first charging station just fine. And then the proverbial wheels come off. While the car’s system said it was fully charged, Broder discovers he’s losing charged miles faster than he should so he slows down, turns off the heat, and drives in the right lane until he can get to the next charging station. Frustrated, he charges it and gets to a hotel with some 90 miles left of range, about twice the 46 miles he needs to get back to a charging station the next morning.

But when he gets up and goes out to start the car in the now 10 degree weather, he finds the car display shows only 25 miles of remaining range and he won’t be able to make it to the charging station. By the end, he has to have the car towed to the charging station where he waited 80 minutes for it to recharge so he could get back to Manhattan.

This recap is retold in an eloquent 2,000 word article that details every moment of the more than 24 hour test drive. Broder describes how several different Tesla employees helped him – everyone from an agent and product planner to the chief technology officer – during his drive.

Defensive vs. Factual

And then Elon Musk gets involved.

Three days after Broder’s article runs, Musk tweets, “NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell story that he didn’t actually charge to max & took a long detour.”

Elon Musk Tweets about John Broder Review

Even if he didn’t charge to the maximum and he did take a long detour, as both a Tesla customer and a highly-influential journalist, his experience is different than what the company promised.

Imagine if Broder had just paid more than $100,000 for the car and had this experience. Let’s say he then tweets about it and puts it on Facebook and tells his friends not to buy it. Would Musk debate him then?

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Musk continues to tell the world why Broder is wrong, detailing their side of the story on the Tesla blog. Some rabid Tesla fans have come to Musk’s defense, but overall, he looks defensive.

The Risk of DIY Earned Media

This demonstrates both the magic and the challenge of earned media. If your customers and influencers love what you’re selling and have the same experience as you’ve told them to expect, earned media and social media both work magically in your favor. It’s good for your ego, it’s good for business, and it makes people want to buy from you.

But if, operationally, things are not what they seem and a customer has an experience very different than what you tell them to expect, they now have a very large voice.

It used to be, if a story like this ran, the communications professionals would be brought in. First we’d be admonished for “letting this happen” and then we’d be told to fix it.

We’d call the journalist and work very hard to get either a second story or a retraction. The latter, of course, nearly impossible in this particular scenario.

But now? Now everyone has a voice, including the leader of an organization who isn’t accustomed to being told he’s wrong. He’s acting on emotion, not on strategy or planning. He’s acting without the benefit of a consulting his communication professionals.

And acting on emotion, no matter how smart you are, always gets you in trouble. Always.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

90 comments
chelpixie
chelpixie

He could have communicated better, started that conversation on a better note. If Elon looked at the data and if he's right...he's right to call bullshit on something a journalist published that was inaccurate. Perhaps he needs to phrase it better but defending your product isn't a bad choice.

 

It definitely read like he reacted without thinking. Social channels and the internet give us the ability to vent. It's taking a while for high profile (and anyone, really) people to learn that it's not always the best choice.

RickRice
RickRice

 @ginidietrich I'm having some trouble with this post, my dear. I watched it pretty closely because I've been thinking about buying a Tesla. I'm pretty sure I'd have told him to go for it with his response, particularly if he showed me how the data was collected and verified. Yes, he's proven to be passionate and zealous - which can be dangerous when a founder and CEO responds to negative press - but it does seem like he took the time to look at the data instead of it being a knee jerk reaction. For better or worse, they seem to have had eyes on the driver / critic without having someone in the passenger seat. (Questionable practice if they don't disclose it, but...)

 

If he was a client I probably would have suggested he phrase things a bit differently, reminds me of your post about the recent Yahoo! announcement, but I'd have supported defending the product based on the data. Sorry, I just don't agree that he acted on emotion alone. And I'm not so sure that he got in trouble for it either. 

 

What's our proof point that his response hurt his brand? I haven't found it. We all know the New York Times isn't perfect. 

 

Sorry, while I'd have liked him to phrase things differently, I think he didn't do a bad job on this.

 

XoXo,

Rick

MrTonyDowling
MrTonyDowling

This is a really intereting article. Today I read a piece on this gentleman over on @markwschaefer Grow blog, and how both his 'will' to make things happen were at the centre of his 'success' and how he goes 'all in' when he believes in something. As is the case, I understand with the SpaceX company he has founded. 

This is clearly a passionate and emotional guy, as well as an extraordinarily clever guy.

I cant help forming an opinion that he is someone that 'shoots from the hip' as the saying goes. 

Right or wrong, he is at least authentic and true to himself. 

Interesting character, and an interesting insight too, thanks @ginidietrich 

bradmarley
bradmarley

Is it also possible a communications person was involved, but their counsel wasn't taken to heart? CEOs have large egos that are hard to contain. We're just the PR people - what do we know?

 

Like you said, he doesn't take kindly to being told no, so maybe he just ignored their advice. *shrugs*

 

Consider this my official request for a post that details how communications professionals can deal with tough executives.

 

Thanks in advance.

Karen_C_Wilson
Karen_C_Wilson

Reactionary responses also tend to bring more attention to the original story - which is the opposite of what he'd want, no? Even if the facts presented by the reporter are skewed or just plain wrong, a carefully crafted response that doesn't call attention to it or sound defensive would seem like a no-brainer to me.

 

I once had a shipping company employee tell me I shipped something the wrong way five years ago when they lost my packages that totaled around $2000. I'm not sure how you ship something the wrong way since I had the to and from addresses in the right place, but being told that did not endear me to them and I avoid using them to this day. That isn't the way to handle a customer who is doing something that isn't considered ideal or right.

slahar
slahar

Agree, the tweet looks very defensive. Now, if Elon Musk is your boss and approaches you for guidance right before he's about to hit "send" on the nasty tweet....what do you do? 

adebrunner1
adebrunner1

I often agree with your blogs, but I think this is a backwards view of how this whole thing played out. First, we don't know for sure that he didn't use a PR professional to help with this message (maybe you do, but I don't). Second, if he did act alone, this is more of a case study on how to defend your company against a media powerhouse than a DIY communications disaster. If Tesla were my client (and knowing this would be the outcome in advance), I wouldn't tell them to change a thing. In fact, Elon Musk himself says his only regret is not addressing the NYT "rebuttal" and essentially allowing them to have the last word. So to think of this situation as anything but a "win" for Tesla is confusing to me. Just because there was some controversy around it doesn't mean that it was a failure.

 

JamieFavreau
JamieFavreau

Seriously.  How could you not cold weather test your car?  You can't get mad because the person was driving in cold weather that is the fault of your own.  This has driven press away from the entire financial debacle over at Fisker which is probably a good thing since they are in their own financial trouble.  So basically he is helping his competition by making a big scene! Just because you are a billionaire doesn't mean you bad mouth anyone who doesn't agree with you. 

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

The biggest thing I take from this is he has 160,000 followers and less than 1% retweeted his tweet. hat is not a very high 'We got your back' score. There is more to this story. Having worked on advanced hydrogen fuel cell car and bus programs with many of the major automakers this sounds like a bunch of bonehead moves by Tesla.

 

Why did no one drive with him like a tech guy with the company or at least caravan. They left so much open to go wrong. Which makes me really wonder if those cars are safe or reliable when dumb people run the company ;-) See image is everything!

 

PattiRoseKnight1
PattiRoseKnight1

I've learned the hard way to never act on emotion - sometimes that is what it takes so it never happens again.

LouHoffman
LouHoffman

After watching the NYT/Tesla debacle, I was reminded that the very traits that cause CEOs like Musk be successful are the same ones that cause them to be hoisted on their own petard.

 

They have incredible strength of conviction, particularly when it comes to taking on "The Man."

 

The New York Times represented "The Man."

 

So when a crisis arrives at their door step, they automatically default to "I know best," relegating the communication professionals to a secondary role.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @chelpixie I totally agree you have to call BS when it is, and you're right in how that message is delivered. He came across as arrogant and defensive. I think there are much better ways to handle that. I just had this situation with a client last night. He was quoted as saying something he didn't like. When I talked him through it, I said, "Well, is that what you said?" He mumbled and then began to defend himself. I actually laughed at him. As communications pros, we can help, but you have to let us.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @RickRice Totally fair. His whole response rubbed me the wrong way. It was in the way he phrased it that really got to me, which leads me to believe he did act on emotion and didn't bring in his communications counsel. But, as I read the comments and other articles, there are lots and lots of people defending him (in the comments here, too). I would have counseled him differently. Just my take on it.

ScottPropp
ScottPropp

@ginidietrich actually just arriving - one more snowstorm on the way back and two client sessions...great trip all in all

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

 @MrTonyDowling  @markwschaefer  @ginidietrich Want to point out that people often connect shooting from the hip with authenticity, but being authentic can also mean taking the time to refine your own thoughts, and doesn't mean you always say everything you think.

 

I think this is part of why PR gets the "spin" rap, there's a subtle but untalked about assumption that PR is simply a way to help clean up someone's "real" thoughts.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @slahar I would make him sit back and think about it. I'd have him write the blog post he published, but not hit the publish button. I'd have him sleep on it. For a day or six. Then we'd go back and look at the pros and cons and discuss different ways to handle it that either made him look less arrogant or even got Broder to do another story. But telling the journalist he's wrong and drove the car all wrong (according to their logs)? That's not how you win friends and influence people.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @adebrunner1 Totally fair ... and lots of people who have written and commented about this agree with you. I read all of it and really thought about how we would counsel him if he were a client. It wouldn't have been in this manner. I'm big on two words: I'm sorry. I have no problem with how he outlined everything the journalist did wrong. But the words he chose are what rubs me the wrong way. If we were counseling him, I'd let him write the blog post he published, let him calm down, and then we'd talk about how to write in a way that doesn't make him sound so defensive or ego-centric.

 

Maybe the journalist was wrong and ignored everything he shouldn't have. But he writes for the NY Times and has HUGE power and influence. You don't take that on in a defensive manner. There are many, many other ways to handle it more professionally. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @JamieFavreau Oh they did - they've tested in lots of cold (and hot) places. The trouble I have with it all is, even if the journalist royally screwed up and did things wrong, he's their customer. Is Musk going to tweet how his customers are idiots if they do the same thing?

adebrunner1
adebrunner1

 @JamieFavreau They did cold weather testing. His wasn't mad because of the weather. He was mad because the guy testing the car ignored "low battery" alerts as he passed by charging stations, didn't charge it fully, drove out of his way and then claimed that the need to call a tow truck was unavoidable. It was misleading at best. Certainly not journalism of high integrity. Since this article, other testers have completed the trip successfully at similar temperatures.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @HowieG As someone who has set up these kinds of media tests, I know why they didn't have anyone go along with him. He most likely wouldn't allow it. I really like what Tesla is doing and would love a world where we don't have to rely on oil. But, from a communications perspective, they didn't handle this one well. Pointing out all the things the journalist did wrong along the drive is akin to pointing out why your customers are idiots. Bad, bad business.

chelpixie
chelpixie

 @ginidietrich LOL, he mumbled reminded me of having a conversation with a friend recently who did the same thing.

 

I want Tesla to succeed because I'm excited about their potential and hopefully they won't screw it up by bad communication. 

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

 @JoeCardillo  @MrTonyDowling  @markwschaefer  @ginidietrich Wow Joe- that line is really really great- "Want to point out that people often connect shooting from the hip with authenticity, but being authentic can also mean taking the time to refine your own thoughts, and doesn't mean you always say everything you think." Gini and I are both introverts who like this time to ponder- I certainly hope that isn't viewed as being "un-authentic". 

Karen_C_Wilson
Karen_C_Wilson

 @ginidietrich True. I blogged about it at the time and I did name names. I also tweeted about it and they responded and did well dealing with the matter, but the reputation of the company was already not good for me based on previous experience. 

adebrunner1
adebrunner1

 @ginidietrich  @JamieFavreau The journalist is not Tesla's customer. He didn't buy the car he drove (did he? I honestly don't know). He's a professional reviewer of cars. He was also supposed to be writing a story about the network of charging stations, which were ample enough to allow him to make the trip. That was supposed to be the point of the story., that electric cars and charging technology have come so far along that you could make a reasonable trip by using the current network of charging providers. He made it appear as though that was impossible.This doesn't mean that people aren't going to run out of juice because of legitimate problems with the technology, but legitimacy is the key.

 

If I am doing a review on a gas powered car (or the idea of a gas powered car in the 1930s) and I say that it's impossible to drive one from NYC to LA, but I just happened to skip the last gas station for 150 miles in Kansas (despite the fact that there was a flashing light in my car telling me that I only had 100 miles left on the tank) I would say that my credibility certainly deserves to be called into question.

 

Plus, there have been tons of reviews of the car. Some good, some not as good. This one was particularly scathing/high-profile and founded in lies, so I'm sure he felt compelled to respond with the facts. He wouldn't do this to a customer, at least partially because he wouldn't be able to confirm that he/she was lying, but also because the customer probably actually wants it to work out. The journalist was not testing the car out in good faith and seemed to have doomed it to fail from the start. Maybe there was a more politically correct way to address the issues, but if I were a Tesla owner or interested in buying one, I'd be completely satisfied with this response.

 

One final thought is that he never called anyone an idiot. He simply pointed out potential bias from the journalist and factual errors in the article. I think he showed the same amount, or possibly more, respect than he was shown by the reviewer.

JamieFavreau
JamieFavreau

 @ginidietrich I have to agree.  Isn't the customer always right?  Plus, not everyone is going to follow directions. That is human nature. 

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

 @ginidietrich if that is true about the media test they didn't test the car enough. Something like that has to be bullet proof in operating perfectly.

 

Unlike trickle down economics which does work, it does in technology. Breakthroughs happen for the rich and then we get it. This is especially true for cars. So go Elon.

 

My point was if they took care of the situation the way they designed the car Elon wouldn't of been in the situation of showcasing his communication skills. For every car part they have to prove it can survive a crash in a way that doesn't kill people. Engineers spend days/weeks creating data charts for the Government Regulator showing every single way the part can be impacted, what will happen and proof they tested to confirm, many times (crashing on sleds and cars etc)  Maybe design the media test the same way?

 

Vermont is having a huge debate about ripping apart mountain ridge lines to erect 300FT industrial wind turbine farms destroying the beauty and animal habits and create massive erosion problems because they have to cut trees and pave roads to the top....all because power generation creates 4% of the greenhouse gases in the state vs farms and cars which is 75%. So while @sensanders and the Governor aren't very smart it seems maybe Elon is smarter and can help us for reals.

LouHoffman
LouHoffman

 @ginidietrich I heard a little "Jack Black" in your first line. Seriously (yes I'm capable), I agree with your point ... which is where his communications team could have helped.

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

 @ginidietrich  @adebrunner1  @JamieFavreau Oh well that's good because secretly my plan is to work for SS someday =). Y'all are definitely my kind of people.

 

Maybe what Elon Musk is suffering from is the social media hot-air-balloon-head you were talking about with Julia on the other post today. He's a super smart dude and has great vision and isn't the prickliest start-up person by any measure, but he clearly chose not to be the bigger person in that situation. When you're working on a company that is going to hopefully be worth billions that's a mistake you can't afford to make.

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

 @adebrunner1  @ginidietrich  @JamieFavreau He didn't call NYT or Broder an idiot, but it was implied by the language and word choice.

 

A much better way to address would have been "Awesome! We totally appreciate you taking the car for a spin, that's a bummer about the experience but the good news is we can show you how it could be better." Which it sounds like they did, outside of Musk's response, and that's because Tesla is a place where the people believe in and love the product and experience.