As a retired operative of the auto propaganda community, I watched the schoolyard brawl between Tesla’s Elon Musk and the New York Time’s John Broder with detached interest. I won’t re-hash it again. Unless you live in a monastery in Tibet, and your Samsung Note 2 was impounded, because you were caught masturbating to Google image search, it was impossible to escape the fallout from the war of tweets, blogs, and counter-tweets. To this day, bullets and barbs still ricochet through the Internet. Only hours ago, Musk was still seen tweeting about an “impressively out of touch NYT auto editor,” while the world at large is utterly confused. And that is the true tragedy. This after-action report is dedicated to the victims.
At the end of a modern war, both sides declare themselves winners and go home, leaving behind ruins and scorched earth. Same thing happened after the Total Tesla Twitter War. Both sides of the spectrum, the EV-haters and the EV-lovers, say they won this one. Who lost then? Tesla did, and along with Tesla, the fledgling EV industry. Tesla may have won the argument, but it lost the now completely confounded hundreds of millions of people caught between the tweeting fronts.
The radicals, EV lovers and haters alike, do not need any convincing. Who needs to be convinced are the gasoline-powered hundreds of millions of people, called consumers, who buy a car not as a science experiment, or as a display of political leanings. They buy a car to get them from A to B without fuss, maybe with a spontaneous detour to C. They get anxious when the gas gauge approaches empty, and when there isn’t a gas station after a few more miles, on their side of the road, preferably. They will not buy a car that demands the same level of high anxiety all the way from Washington, DC, to Boston. They also won’t wait an hour for the car to fill up.
The Total Tesla Twitter War, and trust me, none of the hundreds of millions did escape the ferocious carpet bombing, could not have been better planned by an axis of evil, formed by BP, Shell Oil, and Valero. Shell-shocked consumers are left with the impression that a normal ride in one of those electric vehicles must be planned like an Atlantic crossing in a single engine plane. They were told by CNN, a network that had set out to prove Broder wrong, that the “most scary part of the trip” was 200 miles long. They heard that a group of Tesla-aficionados, likewise on the road to exonerate Tesla, needed to be provided with “multiple versions of beta software” flashed onto one owner’s car multiple times, to continue the trip.
During the Total Tesla Twitter War, hundreds of millions of people, also known as “the car market” learned that to drive an EV, one better pick a not so cold day for the outing, because the heat must be kept down. You must drive below the legal limit, and not stray from the New Jersey Turnpike. The response of the hundreds of millions? “Very interesting. I know, electric cars are the future. Call me when simple people like me can use them.”
The 20 million or so who live around New York City and points East were completely lost to the electric cause once the Cross Bronx Expressway was mentioned in the reports. In a (well-maintained and gassed-up) regular car, that piece of scenic roadway is passed only with the utmost trepidation. In an electric car? “Are you kidding me?”
I was professionally horrified when I heard of Elon Musk taking to Twitter, calling John Broder a fake. If I had not read about it in Reuters, I would not even have noticed the article in the Times. It was Musk’s tweet, and not Broder’s piece that started the war. Where I worked most of my professional life, CEO’s of car companies did not tweet. They didn’t even do email, their secretaries did, somewhere by the turn of the millennium. “But that’s just how Elon is,” said someone who is familiar with the situation, as they say. “If you buy a Toyota, you won’t meet Akio. Buy a Model S, and you will meet Elon. It’s unavoidable.”
A CEO of a real car company would never stoop so low and lambast a newspaper writer for a botched review. In the executive suite, car reviews are not read or taken seriously anyway. If a story is really bad, the CEO will call his chief of PR, upbraid him or her for not having the media under control, and let them handle it. A professional PR chief will know that attracting extra attention is what you absolutely do not want to do in that situation. The matter is handled over the phone, or over lunch, and next time, when there is a car launch on the Fiji islands: “Sorry, all seats are booked.” In really, really, really bad cases, when foul play is involved, you sue and let the lawyers handle it. But always stay out of the limelight, and keep your hands off Twitter. Or, as we had to repeat daily in the industry: “If you step in the shit, don’t run around the house.”
A CEO of a real car company also would have listened to his PR and Marketing people, and he would not send his car into a fight it will lose. These daylong press drives between Supercharger stations are the result of a Musk obsession with the Great American Road Trip. At the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, the electrified sports car was driven en masse from California to Cobo Hall. At the launch of the Tesla Supercharger, a thing that looks like a roadside advertisement for a sex aid, a sadly forgotten Brad Berman drove 531 miles from Tahoe to LA and wrote it up in the New York Times. Another customer drove from Las Vegas to the event, replicating a Motor Trend trip. One of these stunts is bound to go wrong, and Broder’s did.
A CEO of a real car company would congratulate his marketing and PR people for positioning the car as how an EV, and frankly a sporty car should be positioned: For quick trips around town or down to the beach. For a road trip, use the SUV. Trust me, people who have $100,000 for an electric car, will fly from DC to Boston. Usually, in a Lear. Environmentally responsible billionaires shun the Gulfstream.
Some say, Musk had to do something, because the story sent the Tesla stock in a tailspin. Let’s look at the chart. When the story ran on February 8, the stock was unimpressed, and pretty much moved sideways. Traders don’t read the car pages of the Times, they read “The Tape”, and Barrons on Sunday. Sure, on Monday the 11th, the stock opened a buck and change down, only to recover to its old trajectory during the trading day. At 2:30 pm, TSLA is back at 38.92. Then suddenly, it goes into a tailspin. What happened at 2:30 pm on February 11?
At 2:30 pm, Musk tweeted his infamous “NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake”. Blogs, retweets, soon all of the media drew attention to a Musk vs. New York Times mudslinging. Promptly, the stock went south again. Lost in the fog of the Total Tesla Twitter War, the TSLA share was shot out of the sky and landed at $37 on the 15th . On the 19th, it changed course, to end up where it had been the week before.
Again, people can read into it whatever they want. The Musk-for-president camp will blame Broder for the loss, and will explain the recovered stock with Tesla’s vindication. The EVs-are-evil camp will say the stock was sold by people learning the truth. The street says these are the typical pre-earnings gyrations, driven by option plays. There was an earnings announcement on Wednesday, the news (“Loss Widens at Electric-Car Maker”) were what one is used to hear from Tesla, the stock shrugged it off. All I can say is that the brouhaha did not instill confidence. Neither in the stock, nor in the car.
PS: Today, the Tesla share is down hard, nearly 10 percent at the time of this typing. I am awaiting a tweet from Elon any minute. Time to go into hiding.