The Biggest Mistake Tesla Motors Made

Tesla Motors is a cool little company.

The Silicon Valley-based firm designs, makes, and sells electric cars. Their newest model—the Tesla Model S—came out last year, and is available for a cool $57,000 (more if you opt for a version with better battery life).

If you’ve heard of the Model S, it’s probably due to a spat that Tesla Motors got into with The New York Times last week. The car company had agreed to let a Times reporter, John Broder, drive one of its cars from Washington, D.C. to Milford, Connecticut.

The resulting story—which documented a flawed car with limited range—infuriated the car company’s CEO, Elon Musk.

Tesla Model S

Mr. Musk took to Twitter and his blog and lambasted the New York Times story, calling it “fake” and accusing the reporter of sabotage. That set off a chain of “he said/she said” recriminations, with the New York Times responding and Tesla counter-responding. It’s a fascinating story; Poynter has a great summary of the spat here.

But there was one part of Musk’s response that leapt off the page to me like a blaring siren (I bolded those lines). He wrote:

When Tesla first approached The New York Times about doing this story, it was supposed to be focused on future advancements in our Supercharger technology. There was no need to write a story about existing Superchargers on the East Coast, as that had already been done by Consumer Reports with no problems! We assumed that the reporter would be fair and impartial, as has been our experience with The New York Times, an organization that prides itself on journalistic integrity. As a result, we did not think to read his past articles and were unaware of his outright disdain for electric cars. We were played for a fool and as a result, let down the cause of electric vehicles.”

Wait…they pitched a reporter from arguably the most influential newspaper in the world and didn’t think to read his past articles? They “assumed” The New York Times would be impartial? They weren’t aware of the reporter’s “outright disdain for electric cars?” Whose fault is that? Musk’s peeved response makes him sound like a student who turned his homework in two weeks late but is still pissed that the professor gave him a “D.”


Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk


In The Media Training Bible, I dedicate two pages to the basic research you should conduct before any interview. That section reads, in part:

“First, search for examples of the reporter’s work. Many news organizations make their archives available online for little or no cost. It’s worth whatever nominal fee the news organization might charge to gain access to a reporter’s body of work.

Use search engines such as Google or Yahoo to conduct free research online, and review the reporter’s social media pages and those of the news organization for which he or she works. Read several of the reporter’s stories, paying closest attention to those related to your topic, to get a sense of the journalist’s tone and approach. You’ll quickly get a feel for whether the reporter is a fair arbiter or may employ tactics that will cast your company in a bad light.”

Perhaps John Broder shaded the story to support his initial hypothesis. But Tesla initiated the coverage, failed to do its basic due diligence, and is unhappy with the result. And now, they’re paying the price of its own amateurish mistake.

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Photo credits: Steve Jurvetson, Brian Solis