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Nikola’s Milton scraps with startup’s media critics

Electric truck startup’s founder says he is sticking up for shareholders

Nikola founder Trevor Milton. (Photo: Nikola)

Trevor Milton is fighting mad.

For the second time in three months, the founder and executive chairman of Nikola Corp. (NASDAQ: NKLA) is blasting a national media outlet over its reporting on him and his newly public electric truck startup. 

The latest incident boiled over Wednesday evening when Milton accused a Bloomberg business news reporter on Twitter of lying about details of a Nikola prototype unveiled in 2016.

In a letter signed by Nikola Chief Legal Officer Britton Worthen, Nikoka threatened to sue reporter Ed Ludlow for libel for a story published under the headline “Nikola Founder Exaggerated the Capability of His Debut Truck.” 

Ludlow wrote that Milton suggested the prototype was driveable, a claim Milton denies.

“When someone deliberately lies, that’s something I’ve got to stick up for my shareholders on because that can spread,” Milton told FreightWaves on Wednesday evening. “That’s a material misrepresentation that can affect all kinds of things with the stock, a position of an officer, a company. That’s not a laughing matter.”

Bloomberg did not change Ludlow’s story.

In 2019, Nikola demonstrated a running Class 8 hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric truck called the Two, a day cab planned for production in a new plant south of Phoenix, in 2023. Nikola expects to begin production of a battery-electric heavy-duty truck called the Tre – a joint venture with IVECO – at a plant in Ulm, Germany in mid-2021.

Indignant executive

Milton said he spoke with Nikola CEO Mark Russell and Chief Financial Officer Kim Brady about the issue, and he said the Nikola board supports his actions.

“The world and the people that rallied behind us are so sick and tired of all these rich-ass people sitting behind desks, doing whatever they want to do or slandering or ruining people,” Milton said. “It’s like they’re screaming, ‘Hell yes, Trevor, thank you so much for stopping these lies from spreading.’

“This was just an absolute blatant lie. And my shareholders want me to stick up for them. They don’t want our stock trashed by some guy spreading lies.”

Support for Milton’s public rancor is not unanimous.

John Stoll, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, tweeted Wednesday evening: “Do you have anyone advising you in PR101? Don’t answer.”

Milton, who owns 35% of Nikola’s 360 million outstanding shares, feels justified in his actions.

“We’re going up against everybody in the world right now because we have a valuation that’s almost $30 billion,” he said. “So, everyone wants to take us down. And so yeah, when someone punches me, if it’s a hard enough punch and it’s a blindsided punch, I’m going to punch back when I know that they did it dishonestly.”

Fit of pique

In April, Milton took issue with CNBC reporting that Nikola had accepted $4.1 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds intended to help companies continue to pay their workers during the nation’s economic shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The reporting paired Nikola’s receipt of the funds through J.P. Morgan Chase with Milton’s purchase in November 2019 of a $32 million ranch in Utah, the largest real estate deal on record in the state.

Milton appeared on the network, defensively proclaiming that despite a $3.3 billion valuation prior to its public debut on June 4, Nikola needed the cash to pay its 300 employees. 

“You’ve got to put them in their place when people are attacking you for things that are not accurate,” Milton said in a May 28 interview with FreightWaves.

Days after the CNBC appearance, Nikola returned the PPP funds untouched, but not because of media pressure, which persuaded some of the more than 60 companies that returned $510 million.

In Nikola’s case, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission approval of its reverse merger with special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) VectoIQ assured Nikola of more than $700 million in investor funds at the closing of its merger.

“When the SEC approval came through, we’re like, ‘Hey, we don’t need this [PPP money],” Milton said.  

Ink by the barrel

Though he said he shrugs off 90% of the criticism leveled at him and Nikola, there are times when Milton ignores the famous quote: “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

Today that equates to the global electronic reach of Bloomberg or CNBC.

“When you are a public figure, you need to develop a thick skin,” said Andy Gilman, CEO of Commcore Consulting Group, a media training and crisis communications firm in Washington. “You need to pick your battles. Media thrives when there is a controversy. When you respond to every real or perceived slight, you keep the controversy going.”

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Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.