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Dead Tree Alert: The Charged Debate Between Tesla and the Times

In my print column, I take a look at the throwdown over the past week between Tesla Motors and the New York Times over a bad review, and what it might mean for the future of p.r. spats. This time, the squeaky wheel got the grease.

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In my print TIME column this week, I take a look at the throwdown over the past week between the Tesla electric car company and the New York Times over a bad review, and what it might mean for the future of p.r. spats between companies and the outlets that cover them. (It’s behind the TIME paywall, and thus subscribers-only, sorry. But it’s cheaper than a Tesla Model S!)

Let me say first what the column does not say. Though I learned more over the past week about superchargers, wheel ratios, battery technology and torque than I ever expected to–don’t worry, I’ll forget it all in a week–I am not an authority on the quality of Tesla’s vehicles or the future of the electric car. And if you are looking for anyone to adjudicate the many, many, many claims and counterclaims between the Times’ reviewer and Tesla founder Elon Musk in more than the most general terms, there are many fine, lengthy blog posts on the Internet that will essay to do that for you.

I wanted to get under the hood of the media thing here, and what struck me about the ruckus (the Times reviewer took an ill-fated test drive that ended with the Tesla shut down on a flatbed, and Musk wrote a data-filled blog post contending the writer, John M. Broder, essentially sabotaged the test) was how different it was from your typical corporate p.r. response.

First, there was the fact that the blog post existed at all. In the digital age, everyone buys ink by the barrel now, and Tesla was essentially able to act in this like its own media company: first Musk blasted the review on Twitter, then he put up a long post full of data monitored from the Times drive—some of which directly refuted claims in the review, some of which didn’t, but all of which created at least the surface impression that Tesla had made an ironclad objective case, because it was data. Once, Tesla might have had to try to pitch a more sympathetic story to a rival paper. Now, companies are media companies too, for good or ill—ill, for instance, in the case of Jeep and Burger King, whose Twitter accounts got hacked this week.

The second thing that struck me was that Tesla’s response didn’t feel like standard corporate crisis p.r. at all. It felt like a political rapid-response operation from a campaign. The first rule of those, in the post Swift Boat era, is that you hit back hard and fast: Musk tweeted a day after the review’s publication that it was “fake.” There was an attack, not just against Broder’s facts, but against his motives: he was “working hard” to make the Tesla fail, purportedly because he had an agenda against the electric car. There was the mobilization of a fervent fanbase: Tesla owners, or sympathetic non-owners, flooded every Times posting (and plenty of third-party ones) with comments, many of them asserting that Broder was in the pocket of oil companies.

Not every corporate crisis lends itself to this kind of response, of course. Tesla was positioned both with data on hand and a vocal base of support. There were no telemetry logs Carnival could have released to get over its poop-cruise debacle. And in the long term I don’t know if Tesla helped itself or not. In the short term, CNN and CNBC, among others, did successful, high-profile re-drives of the Times route this week, with much more attention than they otherwise would have gotten.

In that sense, anyway, the squeaky wheel got the grease this time.