Product Reviews in the Age of Tesla

Product Reviews in the Age of Tesla

Much has been written about the PR implications of the Tesla-NYT battle over a product review. My colleague Marco Pena has a fresh take you haven’t seen before.

But first: for the record, I think every company should be empowered to behave like a media publisher. Before they take that step they must understand their company voice. In Tesla’s case, the voice is confrontational. This voice might be working for them at the moment. Other companies – especially those with deeper interdepenence with partners – will want to consider their voice. If they are inspired by the Tesla battle to start publishing their own content – which most companies practicing PR in 2013 should do – they should examine whether “confrontational” is the right voice for them. The lone maverick style of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs is appealing, but not right for all.

Now on to Marco, who runs the Edelman Reviews Lab where he tests products and manages review programs on behalf of clients. His experience with product reviews is battle-tested. See his comment (below) on this Forbes article, “Elon Musk: Bad Review In New York Times Cost Tesla $100 Million,” and let us know what you think.

This story is fascinating to me. Having worked in tech product reviews for the last 13 years, I thought I had seen it all and have certainly been on both sides of a negative review. One thing is clear. The power of reviews is strong and only getting stronger in an age where consumers don’t trust company marketing. I get that “these aren’t laptops” we’re talking about or even burgers as with the recent scathing New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s NYC restaurant. However, the same principles behind a smart product reviews strategy apply no matter the product.

I’ve counseled many clients against doing exactly what Elon Musk did here and in most cases, have been successful in getting a reviewer to re-test or amend a review. The goal is to never be in this situation to begin with by doing a significant amount of pre-testing but if it does happen, I recommend working closely with the reviewer and his editor on an amicable resolution. One that doesn’t make the reviewer lose credibility with his readers while setting the record straight for the manufacturer, if there is in fact an error in the test methodology. It’s also important to keep the relationship between Tesla and the reviewer in good standing so that together they can continue to give consumers a sense for the product experience of new models as they are released.

That said, I don’t know how this particular review was managed or whether all resolution options were exhausted by Tesla prior to taking retaliatory action. If Musk and his team did exhaust all options, then it’s likely they had no choice. There aren’t just millions of dollars in sales at stake, but also Tesla’s reputation and even the electric vehicle industry itself could take a huge hit. I’m still not sure a public dispute is what’s best for consumers. They will either take sides or steer clear of both Tesla and The New York Times, perhaps unnecessarily. And what about ad buys with the Times? Everyone loses here.