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Recently, the New York Times published a review of the Tesla Model S electric car.
The review, written by a well-known journalist, John Broder, was titled Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway, and as the title suggests, was not favorable to Tesla. According to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, a well-known entrepreneur, Broder's review was, amongst other things, "bogus." Not one to shy away from the spotlight, Musk took to the web to prove he was right.
The ensuing public debate between Musk and Broder and the New York Times has sparked a media firestorm that is better than many boxing matches. While the long-term impact of the debate is impossible to predict, there are a number of things companies can learn from what has taken place thus far. Here are seven.
1. Reviews are a double-edged sword
The New York Times' John Broder didn't simply pick up a Model S for its review. The automobile was provided by Tesla, which highlights an inconvenient truth for companies: reviews can go both ways.
Brands should not expect that a good review is guaranteed when they let reporters and bloggers try out their wares and even though it's not unreasonable to expect that reviews will be accurate and written in good faith, that isn't even guaranteed either.
2. Data alone doesn't win arguments
We live in a world awash in data, and although this creates challenges, by and large, having more data is a good thing. But don't be fooled: data alone doesn't win arguments. First, not everyone is swayed by data (see below), but more importantly, the devil is in the details. Data in and of itself isn't always conclusive, and there are multiple ways it can be analyzed, introducing the opportunity for spin.
In the case of Tesla, interesting data was presented, but the analysis put forth by Musk was hardly bulletproof and actually called attention to things Tesla probably shouldn't have called attention to, so the fact that data was used to make a point really didn't matter as much as Musk clearly thought it would.
3. You care more than consumers
Was the Broder's review of the Tesla S flawed and unfair? One thing is for sure: Tesla, Broder and the New York Times care about the answer to this question more than the average consumer does.
Obviously, no company wants falsehoods spread about it. Let that happen too often and it can have a negative impact on the company's reputation and brand. But at the end of the day, it's also important for companies to recognize that when it comes to undesirable claims that are in dispute, most consumers simply won't have the desire to invest themselves in the outcome.
4. Shrewd often beats smart
There's little doubt that Tesla's Elon Musk is a smart guy. And his response to the New York Times review is what you'd expect from a smart guy. But sometimes it pays to be more shrewd than smart.
Instead of rushing to compile data and make a technical argument that a high-profile reviewer lied, Musk could have chosen alternative approaches that likely would have been more effective. For instance, he could have suggested that the New York Times didn't follow the proper operating procedures. To shame the Times and prove his argument, he could have offered other news organizations the opportunity to do a similar test drive.
As it turns out, others have, and had Musk chosen to highlight those instead, he might have mounted a more effective defense of his company's product with far less effort.
5. Dirty laundry always stinks up your brand
Negativity sucks. Sometimes you can't avoid it, but when trying to build and maintain a strong consumer brand, companies are advised to avoid negativity like the plague. And when negative buzz develops, it's crucial not to amplify it.
Here, Tesla and Elon Musk took a negative review and managed to highlight it and significantly extend its visibility. Whether Musk is right or wrong, that stinks for Tesla.
6. Be careful with accusations
If negativity sucks, negativity laced with personal accusations sucks even more. Elon Musk may have some valid criticisms of the way John Broder performed his test drive, but in accusing Broder of lying, Musk took the dispute into territory that company executives are usually wise to avoid no matter how badly they believe their companies have been wronged.
7. Controversy rarely sways those who haven't made up their minds
Tesla is a high-profile company doing and attempting to do big things in a lucrative, competitive industry filled with entrenched interests. That, for obvious reasons, means that it has its fair share of supporters and detractors. For supporters, the New York Times review of the Tesla S didn't need Musk's rebuke; it must have been flawed. For detractors, the review confirmed what they already believed: that Tesla's product is inferior.
That leaves those who are undecided, and few of them are likely to be convinced one way or the other by the back-and-forth debate that emerged here.