Should CEOs Fight Back Against Bad Press?

To fight or not to fight? Tesla Founder and CEO Elon Musk has hammered away at the media’s treatment of his electric-vehicle startup. This brilliant serial entrepreneur is not alone; many CEOs face the issue of bad press. Is this sort of resistance productive for CEOs and the companies they’re trying to protect?

The old adage against arguing with someone who buys ink by the barrel has collapsed in at least two ways: Newspapers have crumbled, and today’s 24×7 internet-based newscycle and digital channels give brands direct and timely access to investors and other constituencies that they didn’t have before.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk has attempted to leverage this by barely letting the pixels dry on any significant criticism of his EV venture and first vehicle, the Tesla Model S. He used that strategy in blogging a detailed debunking of a critical New York Times report last winter; and Musk just returned to that mode in a long and strident defense of under-hood fires in the Model S that have prompted a federal investigation.

Even though the automotive, tech and popular press are all decidedly in his favor, Musk complained about “an onslaught of popular and financial media seeking to make a sensation” out of the two fires and even put a halo around what he thought was unfair coverage by a single publication, Automotive News.

Musk’s approach is reminiscent of that of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, though he was far more accessible to the press. Before global tech afficionados fell in love with Apple in recent years, it’s noteworthy that Jobs parried aggressively with media and used Jobs’ control-freak nature to further their criticism.

Another CEO who recently harangued critics is AIG CEO Robert Benmosche, who likened opposition to the insurance giant’s executive bonuses from the media and others to “pitch forks” and “hangman’s nooses” that terrorized civil-rights supporters in the South in an earlier era. But when his comments to The Wall Street Journal got immediate blowback from traditional and social media, as well as on Capitol Hill, Benmosche retreated with an apology.

Brad Phillips, owner of Mr. MediaTraining, a firm that provides such training to CEOs, said that, “corporate leaders complaining about media treatment doesn’t work particularly well as a long-term strategy.” But the sort of point-by-point refutation that Musk has used, Phillips said, can be effective in fighting back.

Consider this: It was shortly after Musk battled the Times that things began turning around for Tesla, including perceptions in the media and by investors, and the company and its stock began a magic carpet ride to the top of the global EV trade that continues – with some turbulence – to this day.







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