Bad test drive

How Elon Musk can retool a stupid public relations strategy

February 26, 2013
Obsession
Energy Shocks
February 26, 2013

Elon Musk has announced a new public relations strategy after losing $100 million in sales because of a New York Times critique of his sexy Model S. The campaign is meant to becalm motorists and recover from a 13% plunge in Tesla shares since the Feb. 8 story, which Musk bitterly assails as personal and mean-spirited.

But Musk—whose over-the-top response (and the Times’ equally weird defensive crouch) has attracted more attention than the review itself—seems to see the wrong enemy.

In his review, John Broder, the Times reporter, reported in excruciating detail a long test drive in cold weather in which he ultimately ran out of juice and had to be towed. Yet Broder did not say the Tesla is a flawed automobile. He called it a “technological wonder, with luminous paint on aluminum bodywork, a spacious and ultrahip cabin.”

Rather, Broder’s central gripe was bad instructions—Musk’s staff steered him wrong, and a bad experience resulted. That is an easily addressed fault compared with the electric-car industry’s much more profound pricing and marketing problems across the globe.

Musk and the Times’ own public editor have hee-hawed at Broder’s lack of common sense—he adhered religiously to verbal instructions from Musk’s CTO, spokeswoman and mechanical support personnel, while failing to ignore them and read the manual. How stupid was that?

Yet the surprising part of the fiasco is not that Broder would drive on zero charge, but the casual and strange advice conveyed to him as he made his high-profile test drive. Musk’s flat-footed staff only belatedly grasped the pivotal importance of Indicator No. 6 in Quartz’s guidelines for the geopolitics of energy, which explains the role of public opinion in moving events.

Musk is attempting to recover by blaming Broder. But a rational public relations strategy would discard the parade and balloons and say simply, “You know, we advised Mr. Broder poorly. Our car is first rate, and another S is parked outside his office as we speak. We ask him to give it another try. Here is how to get the most out of it.”

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