Tesla

The Pros and Cons of Counterpunching

Counterpunching as a communications strategy can work, but also can backfire. There is no better example of an impactful counterpunch than Jason Kander’s 2016 political ad that showed him assembling an assault rifle blindfolded to refute a charge by his opponent that he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander still lost the election.

Counterpunching as a communications strategy can work, but also can backfire. There is no better example of an impactful counterpunch than Jason Kander’s 2016 political ad that showed him assembling an assault rifle blindfolded to refute a charge by his opponent that he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander still lost the election.

Counterpunching can be an effective strategy when attacked online, on TV or in print. But the counterpunch needs to pack some punch or else it may only serve to give more exposure to the original attack.

There is hardly a better example of an effective counterpunch than Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander’s response to a TV ad by his incumbent opponent claiming he was soft on the Second Amendment. Kander, a 35-year-old former Army intelligence officer, produced a 30-second TV spot in which he assembles an AR-15 assault rifle blindfolded while explaining his views on guns.

He describes how he rode shotgun while serving in Afghanistan for unarmed convoys, supports the Second Amendment and favors background checks “so terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these.” The spot ends with Kander saying, “I approved this message, ‘cause I’d like to see Senator Blunt do this” as he places a round in the fully assembled rifle.

Kander didn’t unseat Blunt, who was seeking re-election to the US Senate with strong support from the National Rifle Association, but he didn’t lose because of his views on guns. His ad clearly set the record straight.

Donald Trump rode his impulsive counterpunching prowess through a crowded 2016 GOP presidential primary and ultimately to the White House. As a debate strategy, Trump’s counterpunches kept his adversaries off balance and successfully deflected their criticisms of him.

Debaters often use counterpunching as a technique. But using counterpunching as a strategy in a communications crisis can be trickier because, unlike a debate, there are no formal rules. In the wide-open horizons of social media, a misplaced counterpunch can have the same effect as shooting yourself in the foot.

Like any other kind of strategic communication, a counterpunch needs to be weighed for its positive and potential negative outcomes. One of the most important considerations is context. Typically, gun control advocates don’t defend their views by brandishing automatic weapons. In Kander’s case, it made sense. As one political observer noted, “Militarism sells in Missouri.” The candidate’s ad was a not-so-subtle way to underscore that Kander served in the military and his opponent didn’t, despite his NRA endorsement.

Many of Trump’s campaign counterpunches and his defensive presidential tweets have stirred added controversy and, in more than few cases, fueled entire new controversies. If your strategy is to win the news cycle every day, this works. If you are trying to escape the news cycle, then counterpunching can be counter-effective.

The best use of counterpunching is to respond to a serious false claim about you or your organization. Even then the road can be treacherous.

Consider Tesla’s counterpunch to a 2013 New York Times story about a test drive that ended with a depleted battery and an embarrassing tow. Elon Musk called the story a fake and accused the writer of intentionally staging the bad ending. Musk trotted out graphs and charts based on driving logs that contested key points in the Times article.

The Musk counterpunch had antecedents. Many years before Audi challenged a report about sudden acceleration in its cars and won a retraction. However, Musk never quite earned a retraction, just a long article in the Times’ Public Editor’s Journal. The most telling part of the article was a comment by a reader and Tesla Model S owner who said the reporter should have read the manual about the range of the electric vehicle:


“Unlike Mr. Musk, I don’t claim that the write ‘faked’ the story, but he certainly didn’t seem to employ the least bit of care or responsibility in fuel management (required of any vehicle, regardless of fuel type).”

But the reader also laid blame on Tesla:

“Tesla is not faultless in this, especially since it suggested the test drive. Tesla should have made it very clear that the 200-mile stretch between the two supercharger stations approaches the maximum distance and that all range maximization strategies should be employed.”

Not exactly a direct hit for a counterpunch. Instead of attacking the reporter and his integrity, Musk might have chosen another strategy, such as pointing out the need for more charging stations to eliminate problems like this. That would have acknowledged the problem and identified a solution, maybe earning editorial support for the solution by the influential newspaper.

A year later, Tesla appeared to learn this lesson and stayed quiet when the CBS’ news magazine 60 Minutes aired a glowing piece about the Tesla, which included an engine growling noise when the car accelerated. Auto junkies jumped on the report, noting that electric cars don’t growl. CBS issued an apology, blaming the engine noise dubbing on an “audio error.” There was no win for Tesla in this drag race, so it wisely stayed in the grandstands.

When you are hit with a false claim, it is tempting to strike back. It can work, but it often doesn’t. Jason Kander produced one of the best ever counterpunching ads – and he still lost. Before counterpunching, think it through before acting on emotion.

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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Tesla and Tips on Talking Like a Visionary

Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla and SpaceX, is an indisputable visionary for his innovations, like the Model X electric crossover, shown here in its 2012 unveiling. But Musk is an effective speaker because he brings the future to the present, breaks big topics into small ones and loves to talk about doors.  (Photo Credit – Paul Sancya, The AP) 

Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla and SpaceX, is an indisputable visionary for his innovations, like the Model X electric crossover, shown here in its 2012 unveiling. But Musk is an effective speaker because he brings the future to the present, breaks big topics into small ones and loves to talk about doors. (Photo Credit – Paul Sancya, The AP) 

Few people would dispute Elon Musk is a visionary. But when he talks about Tesla, “he always talks about what it’s like to drive in the car, what it’s like to look at the car and how the doors work.” His words paint pictures. His vision is cast in the present tense.

Elon Musk in a 2013 TED Talk on his innovative companies Tesla and SpaceX. 

Elon Musk in a 2013 TED Talk on his innovative companies Tesla and SpaceX. 

Noah Zandan, cofounder of Quantified Communications and a leading exponent of using big data and analytics to improve communications, says visionary leaders are surprisingly grounded in how they speak.

After assessing “hundreds of transcripts of visionary leaders,” Zandan came away with three surprising key takeaways:

  • “We thought visionaries would talk a lot about the future, but in fact they talked about the present.”
  • “We thought visionaries would really be complex thinkers, but in fact what they’re really concerned with is making things simple and breaking it down into steps.”
  • “We thought the visionaries would be really concerned with their own vision, but in fact they’re more concerned with getting their vision into the minds of their audience.”

In practical terms, Zandan says that means speech using a lot of “perceptual language, talking about look, touch and feel” that “brings the audience into the experience with you.”

Too much talk about the future, Zandan says, diminishes a speaker’s credibility with an audience. “People aren’t going to believe you as much.”

Noah Zandan speaking in February in Vancouver on how to speak like a visionary.

Noah Zandan speaking in February in Vancouver on how to speak like a visionary.

Great speakers have a knack or have learned how to draw an audience close to them when they begin and keep them absorbed during their talk. They rely heavily on real-time crowd feedback. Zandan’s techniques augment the native feel of speakers with hard data on audience reactions. That can be of great value to a speaker who has something important to say but isn’t as attuned to audience cues.

The takeaways Zandan extrapolates from his data and analytics are not surprising nor that much different from the advice of experienced speech coaches. The data reinforces the need to make speech tangible, accessible and understandable. Make a topic relatable and show the audience a path to your desired destination.

CFM offers customized media training workshops that put you in the hot seat and leave you better prepared to work with reporters. 

CFM offers customized media training workshops that put you in the hot seat and leave you better prepared to work with reporters. 

While data can improve the word choices speakers make, you can’t divorce speech from the speaker and how she or he looks, projects and sounds. Media training is a great example of showing speakers how they look, project and sound while giving an interview that is captured on video. Ticks, awkward gestures and contorted expressions suddenly stand out, almost drowning out the words spoken, when you see yourself on screen. That’s natural because what we see often sticks around in our brain longer than what we hear. And if what we see is discordant or uncoordinated with what we hear, we tend to dismiss what we hear.

Zandan admits there is more to great speech than data analysis. He underscores the importance of authenticity. “There is obviously authenticity to the way you deliver the message, and there are words that are considered authentic.…The data can lead you down a path of replication. We don’t want to do that because so much of what you communicate is your personality.”

Listening to Elon Musk fawn over Tesla’s doors is perfectly authentic. It makes us want to open and close them, too.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

Don't Sanitize the Truth

Sanitizing your hands is smart. Sanitizing the truth in the middle of a crisis is dangerous.In many circles, tiptoeing around the truth is the norm. Public relations in a crisis shouldn't be one of those circles. 

Good PR shouldn't be about how well you can sanitize the truth. It should be about how well you can tell the truth to build trust. 

There are always other "considerations" — legal, logistical and hierarchal. However, the digital age puts a premium on rapid truth-telling, which should be considered as or more important than other factors in deciding what to say and when and where to say it.

Truth-telling implies having verifiable facts at hand. In a crisis, facts can be elusive. Explaining the urgency by which you are seeking facts is part of candid truth-telling. Meanwhile, you can demonstrate your engagement in the crisis in other ways, starting with a statement of remorse and actions to deal with the problem at hand.

Tesla Raises Bar for Safety, Candor

A fire in a Model S Tesla served as a spark to a candid, detailed and reputation-enhancing e-letter from CEO Elon Musk.Tesla has established a new high bar for the performance, appearance and safety of all-electric cars. Now Tesla founder Elon Musk is establishing an equally high bar for managing any car company's reputation. Musk was candid, detailed and bullish.

A Model S drove over a metal object, which penetrated the heavily reinforced underbelly of the vehicle, struck the car's battery module and ignited a fire. The car's onboard alert system instructed the stunned driver to pull over and exit the vehicle, which he did without injury. The fire was contained in the front section of the car by internal firewalls designed for that purpose.

We know this and more because of an October 4 newsletter sent under the byline of Musk, listed as chairman, product architect and CEO and signed as Elon. The detailed explanation of what happened, as well as the actual exchange between company officials and the driver, are an excellent example of transparency. It also is an outstanding example of reputation management.

With electric cars — and Tesla — still in their infancy, this kind of open dialogue is important to reassure motorists, especially potential Tesla buyers, that the car is safe.

In his newsletter, Musk said a curved part that fell off a truck "appears to be the culprit." "The geometry of the object caused a powerful level action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons," he explained.

Musk didn't lapse into a defensive posture or equivocation. He stood up for his brand in describing the fire in his car and the potential of fires in gas-powered vehicles.

"At no point did the fire enter the passenger compartment," he said. "Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse. A typical gasoline car only has a thin metal sheet protecting the underbody, leaving it vulnerable to destruction of the fuel supply lines or fuel tank."

"For consumers concerned about fire risk," Musk concluded, "there should be absolutely zero doubt it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid."

To back up these claims, Tesla included the exchange between the driver, Rob Carlson, and a company vice president, Jerome Guillen.

Guillen sent email to Carlson two days after the incident. In the email he said, "We are following this case extremely closely and we have sent a team of experts to review your vehicle. All indications are that your Model S drove over a large, oddly shaped metal object, which impacted the leading edge of the vehicle's undercarriage and rotated into the underside of the vehicle. This is a highly uncommon occurrence. Based on our review this far, we believe the Model S performed as designed by limiting the resulting fire to the affected zones only."

Carlson wrote, "Thanks for the support. I completely agree with the assessment to date. I guess you can test for everything, but some other celestial bullet comes along and challenges your design. I agree that the car performed well under such an extreme test. The batteries went through a controlled burn, which Internet images really exaggerate.... I was thinking this was bound to happen, just not to me, But now it is out there and probably gets a sigh of relief as a test and risk issue. This doomsday event has now been tested, and the design and engineering works."

Tesla offered Carlson a white Model S loaner. He declined, saying he would wait for his correctly colored replacement.

It is hard to pay for testimonials like that. What it cost Tesla was candor.

The Tale of Two Car Recalls

Tesla Motors voluntarily recalled 1,400 of its Model S electric cars because of a potentially faulty seat latch. Chrysler demurred, but finally agreed, under federal regulatory pressure, to recall 1.56 million Jeep SUVs that may pose fire risks from rear-impact collisions.

What a contrast.

Elon Musk, Tesla's founder, issued a statement on the company's website explaining the problem and personally apologizing. The company described the recall as voluntary following testing that raised questions about the integrity of the latch and noted it had received no consumer complaints. 

Chrysler officials characterized its recall as a "voluntary campaign," even though it balked at the recall — despite a June 3 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asserting the design of some Jeep SUVs was dangerous because of where the fuel tank was located. The agency pointed to 37 fiery crashes and 51 fatalities related to the design flaw. Concerned citizens collected 127,000 signatures on a petition asking for Chrysler to recall 1.56 million Jeep SUVs. 

Tesla's statement carefully explained the seat latch problem and its proposed solution.

Chrysler, who continues to claim their older model Jeep SUVs are safe, dismissed the recommendations of some car experts and "solved" the problem by agreeing to install trailer hitches on the SUVs. The solution didn't satisfy many who had complained about the safety of the Jeeps.

Tesla plans to tell owners affected by its recall that the car company will pick up their Model S and provide a rental car, if needed, to limit their inconvenience while a repair is made.