The real lessons of Tesla's PR disaster

Tesla CEO Elon Musk accuses the New York Times of trying to kill the electric car -- but ignores deeper problems

Last week the New York Times' John Broder published a harrowing account of his attempt to drive an all-electric Tesla Model S from Washington, D.C., to Boston. The drive did not go as planned.

The Model S did not get anywhere near the 265 miles between charges estimated by the EPA, let alone the 300 miles claimed by Tesla. At one point, Broder had to wait by the side of the freeway for a tow truck in 10-degree weather. The driver had to charge the car for 25 minutes, just so it would have enough juice to release the emergency brake and allow him to get it on the truck.

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Broder never made it past Milford, Conn. Along the way, he introduced the term "range anxiety" to a broader public and stepped into a media maelstrom.

If you're the CEO of a cutting-edge tech company in the bright white spotlight of Wall Street, this is exactly the kind of review you never want to see. But however damaging the story was, Tesla's response was worse. Via his Twitter account, CEO Elon Musk claimed the Times story was "fake," Broder was lying, and he has the driving logs to prove it. (As I write this, Musk had yet to make those logs public.)

[Update: Musk has now published the logs on the Tesla blog. See the comments section for more discussion on that.]

On CNBC, Musk got more specific about what he thought was wrong with Broder's account. He claimed Broder a) didn't start out with the car fully charged, b) drove faster than the speed limit, and c) took an "extended detour" through Manhattan, further draining the battery. From this, Musk declared the Times story was "something of a setup," "misleading," and possibly fabricated.

The real lessons of Tesla's PR disaster

In other words, he's accusing Broder of believing the car when it told him it was fully charged and driving like a normal human being. How dare he?

In Musk's defense, other Tesla owners piped up and said their mileage varies. They've been able to drive further than Broder did -- though not necessarily in the same conditions -- so he must be wrong. The tinfoil helmet crowd has since conjured up the notion that this is a conspiracy by the Times to kill the Tesla and electric vehicles in general.

Here's something most mere mortals don't understand about the world of reviewing technology: Writing a negative review is harder than writing a positive one. It's easy to hand out love notes to large companies with high-profile products. The vendor loves you, because a positive story in a big publication is worth more than millions of dollars in advertising. Your editors love you because positive stories tend to draw more readers and more Web traffic. Your publication's advertising team loves you because it will make it far easier for them to sell ads to that vendor and its competitors.

Publish a negative review, though, and nobody's happy. Readers tend to shy away; they'd rather learn about stuff that makes their lives better, not things that miss the mark. The editors scrutinize it much more closely because they know they'll probably get an angry phone call from the publisher, the vendor, or both. You have to work twice as hard to make sure the flaws you identified really are flaws in the product and not something you did wrong. If something works right the first time, you tend to assume it will work right every time. If it doesn't, you're now in the hell of troubleshooting, which usually involves a lot of time on the phone with the vendor's technicians and, often, their nervous media representatives.

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