No Such Thing as Bad Publicity? I Beg to Differ.

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By Scott Marioni, Executive Vice President, R&J Public Relations

If you’re reading this blog post, there’s an excellent chance that you’re either my mother or someone with at least a passing interest in public relations.  If you fall into the latter category, there’s an even better chance that you’ve heard the phrase “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”  I hope you cringe as hard as I do every time you hear that phrase.

While there is some truth to the claim that negative publicity sometimes has its benefits, that truth typically applies to pop stars fading from the limelight and not to professional organizations looking to build or maintain a reputable brand.  The recent, and ongoing, public battle between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and The New York Times serves as an excellent and timely example of the very real costs associated with bad publicity.  It also happens to demonstrate what happens when companies fail to employ the civil, collegial approach to media relations outlined by my colleague Jason Ledder in his recent post.

As you probably know by now, The Times recently published a negative review of Tesla’s Model S electric sedan and newly-installed ultrafast charging stations along the East Coast.  As you probably also know, Tesla has taken issue with many of the claims made, and ultimately the conclusions reached, by Times reporter John Broder in his review.  This is not unusual, of course.  What is unusual (and unfortunate, I think) is the approach taken by Mr. Musk in responding to the piece.  When the review was published on February 8, Musk immediately took to Twitter, calling Broder’s review a fraud and promising to show proof in an upcoming blog post.  He then went on publicly accuse Broder of sabotaging his own test drive in this combative post on Tesla’s blog.  It’s one thing to disagree with a negative review and it’s another thing entirely to respond by immediately and publicly assailing the integrity of the reviewer and the media outlet in question.

Musk obviously recognized that a bad review like the one published by The Times could have considerable negative effects on Tesla’s reputation and its bottom line.  What he failed to recognize, however, was that he might have been able to mitigate the damage and begin to work toward a much more positive resolution by addressing his concerns with The Times behind the scenes and in a conciliatory tone.  Instead, he threw gasoline on the fire (ironic, as we’re talking about an electric car) putting both reporter and media outlet in a position from which they were forced to dig in and defend their integrity.

The very public war of words, of course, has escalated from there. Battlelines have been clearly drawn and key stakeholders have chosen sides.   Numerous other media outlets have picked the story up, all of them focusing on the negativity of the review and the animosity between Musk and The Times.  While the Model S has apparently earned rave reviews from many other high-profile and reputable experts, it is safe to assume that this one negative review has received more attention than all of the others combined.

Those who subscribe to the “no such thing as bad publicity” theory will probably point to the long thread of congratulatory comments beneath Mr. Musk’s February 13th blog post in which numerous Tesla owners pledge their allegiance to Musk, Tesla and sustainability in general.   Those who agree with me, on the other hand, will likely point to this February 25th article from Reuters in which Musk indicated that Tesla had, to date, lost $100 million in sales and its stock price had fallen 13% since the war of words began.  That’s a pretty hefty price tag for some bad publicity no matter how you slice it.

There is no doubt that Broder’s review would have had a negative impact, at least in the short-term, no matter what.  But I firmly believe that if Mr. Musk had followedJason Ledder’s sage advice, he could have mitigated the damage to sales, shareholder value and reputation – possibly saving the company tens of millions of dollars without calling into question the credibility of both the brand and its CEO.

Yes, there is such a thing as bad publicity.  And if you don’t manage that bad publicity correctly, you can absolutely make it worse.

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