3 questions to ask during any PR crisis

Elon Musk’s battle with a New York Times reporter offers an important lesson on how your community can save the day in a crisis.


You may have read about the Tesla tussle with The New York Times earlier this year. Reporter John Broder wrote a scathing review about the electric Model S. He described a nightmare of a road trip where the car stalled in the cold Northeast temperatures, complete with a large photo of the car being towed.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk rebutted those claims on the company’s blog and claimed the Times cost Tesla $100 million. Perhaps Broder was unaware of the technology in the vehicle, but Musk pulled the road trip data and responded point by point to Broder’s review. He proved that the review was inaccurate and unethical, and that Broder had set out to sabotage the company.

My first thought was that this makes a great case study on the importance of building a community. A loyal community allows you to get out your story without relying on the media, like Musk did on his corporate blog. It’s one of those wonderful benefits of your online efforts and community building.

But there’s a lot more to it than that.

We aren’t all Elon Musk. We can’t get into a vocal and high-profile duel with The New York Times. I dug further into the details and thought about how I’d advise my client in the same situation.

Your community matters

The best crisis communication starts long before any crisis arises. If you don’t spend time building relationships when things are going well, you’ll be all alone when things go bad. You can’t simply “add water” for an instant community.

Your community will come to your rescue when you need it. You can see this in the comments on Musk’s blog post. The majority of people pledge their undying love to him, even if they don’t always agree with his approach.

Ask yourself the following questions when you’re deciding how to respond to a PR crisis:

1. How do we want our response to change perception?

There’s no value in burning bridges — especially with a reporter from The New York Times. Further, you don’t want to come across as angry and defensive.

Musk’s point-by-point rebuttal does both of those things. Decidedly, having that data proved his point, so he successfully planted doubts about the reporter’s intent.

You won’t always have facts on your side. But even if you do, a softer, less accusatory dialogue would be better. You want to win everyone over.

This brings us to the silent audience — all those people reading the reviews and forming perceptions.

2. How can we get the public to sympathize with our brand?

Musk’s response created a second wave of publicity, and not in a good way.

We often focus too much energy on winning over the detractor, and while it’s possible to turn him into an ambassador, sometimes you have to accept that it won’t happen.

In that situation, focus your response less on the detractor and more on having your response out there for the public to see. Musk’s response only served to anger his subject further, who wrote a second piece in The New York Times. Please, stop the bleeding.

Everyone writing about the controversy and the back-and-forth shone an even brighter light on the issue.

If you didn’t see the scathing review the first time it ran, it’s more than likely you caught it after the second.

Don’t respond in anger, but do respond. Show that silent audience — the hundreds or thousands who read the review, comment or whatever is out there on the Internet forever — that you are paying attention and dealing with the issue. Lashing out will only fan the flames.

3. Are we prepared for potential backlash?

Let’s step back and talk about preventive maintenance.

Before you begin your campaign, look at the various ways it might turn against you, and plan accordingly. If you are going to have a Twitter chat, remember that someone can hijack your hashtag and trash talk you.

Be prepared. Research reporters before you invite them to review your product or service.

If Tesla had done its due diligence, it might have noticed Broder isn’t a fan of electric cars to begin with.

It’s difficult not to take criticism personally, especially when it’s your company and the criticism costs you an estimated $100 million.

Every situation is unique. Keeping your loyal audience (the one you’ve been building and nurturing long for a long time) and your ultimate goal (how you want to influence perception) in mind will hopefully keep you resilient in times of crisis.

Lisa Gerber is the founder of Big Leap Creative and a contributor to the Vocus blog, where a version of this article originally appeared. You can read more of her work here.

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