Tesla’s ‘driverless’ public relations: A cautionary tale

by | Sep 14, 2021 | Analysis, Public Relations

It’s not every day you get to watch what it’s like for a massive brand to operate without a global PR strategy. Tesla offers us this window in a remarkable experiment. Errant tweets, car breakdowns, insulting markets, going back on promises, and accident fires aren’t typically newsworthy beyond the local TV news circuit or trades. But when it involves Tesla, the gossip is heavy, the haters are out in force, and with no PR staff to manage this (CEO Elon Musk famously dissolved Tesla’s U.S. PR department in fall 2020), it is a perfect storm for negative news.

As Tesla corporate’s de facto head of Tesla’s PR, Musk has disappointed and angered fans, treated various accidents casually, and been accused of manipulating cryptocurrency markets, just to name a few.

In June, he canceled the Model S Plaid + in a single tweet. “Plaid+ is canceled. No need, as Plaid is just so good.” He added, “0 to 60mph in under 2 secs. Quickest production car ever made of any kind. Has to be felt to be believed.”

Tesla’s ‘driverless’ public relations: A cautionary tale

A PR team could have helped him deliver that news in a less arrogant way

This summer, Musk’s positive support of bitcoin countered by his 180-degree rejection of the cryptocurrency, for being generally energy and carbon-intensive, rang to watchers as a pump and dump. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of the crypto markets would know that the mining of coins uses a lot of energy, often from fossil fueled sources. Elon’s about-face rang as false and deceptive. The negative comments significantly harmed the industry and his personal reputation, causing concern among Tesla’s investors.

Ross Gerber, a longtime Tesla investor, and CEO of Gerber Kawasaki Wealth & Investment Management, recently told Yahoo Finance, “…  I think it’s a very dangerous area for Elon to get in when he’s causing people losses…and it turns people against him and ultimately Tesla.”

Later in May, Musk wiped $14 billion off Tesla’s value with a single Tweet mentioning the company’s stock prices being too high. This ill-advised action also took $3 billion of his ownership of the company as investors dropped.

Add to that the thirty new probes opened by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the recent megapack battery fire in Australia, June’s recall of nearly 300,000 models in China, and April’s deadly car crash, and one thing is transparent – Tesla and Elon Musk don’t lack in the crisis department. Musk’s list of broken promises is so long, it’s spurred a few websites.

The 24/7 crisis comms grind

Managing a PR crisis is never a perfect science; however, professionals can employ some basic techniques to temper fires rather than letting them burn themselves out. As a cleantech PR professional running Technica Communications it’s natural that I value the support PR and crisis communications bring to a company. As a Tesla stockholder, albeit a smaller one than I was in 2020 (specifically because of these failures to manage the message), it irks me to watch this fumble-futzing play out.

Over the years, I’ve met a few early members of Tesla’s PR department who have since moved on from the company. They told me stories of how they ran 24-hour shifts to keep the news of Roadster and Model S battery fires out of the news. They managed the fallout when Elon would go rogue on Twitter, making claims or announcements without giving them the heads up. And, as Ashlee Vane wrote in his biography of Musk, they handled a boss who often would write his own releases, post them when they were finished, and call reporters himself.

Even being one-tenth the size of PR groups for the major automakers, Electrek reporter Fred Lambert recalls how effective they were in his October 2020 report of the department’s dissolution.

“At times, they were extremely helpful with my reporting with responses and context/nuances/corrections.” And while he didn’t always agree with all their approach. I think Tesla’s PR department was a net positive overall as they helped correct a lot of misinformation about the company.”

It seems as if Musk’s PR strategy since the PR department was dissolved has been to “ignore the haters” and keep moving forward

Maybe if you’re a big enough brand, that’s enough. It’s difficult to say how different 2020’s events may have been for Tesla if it had a team of professionals to run damage control, provide expert advice, and leverage their reporter relationships. Indeed, they could not have stopped the speculation around autopilot safety or battery pack fires. However, they could have run “accuracy control” to ensure media articles didn’t conflate these fires with autopilot until investigations were complete. They could have also kept Elon from alienating Tesla’s fanbase with ill-advised messaging maneuvers, and using Twitter as it’s PR dissemination platform of choice.

Since its inception, there have been negative stories about Tesla. It is a massive threat to the status quo of Big Oil and Big Auto and a favorite of short-sellers. As we come upon one year of Tesla’s U.S public reputation being on auto-pilot, it is becoming clear that Musk’s move may be more ill-advised the longer it continues. The larger challenge is, what PR professionals (or teams of PR pros) would want to clean up such a mess, no matter how much they are paid?

Lisa Ann Pinkerton
From the newsroom to the boardroom, Lisa Ann has used her keen analytical skills to share technology stories with the world since 2001. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning Technica Communications, founder and Chairwoman of the non-profit Women In Cleantech & Sustainability, co-host of The Earthlings Podcast, an international speaker and moderator and documentary filmmaker. She was named a PR Executive of the Year by the American Business Awards (2020), Female Entrepreneur of the Year for Advertising and Marketing by the Women in Business and the Professions World Awards (2020), and a Woman of Influence by the Silicon Valley Business Journal (2017). She got her start as a broadcast journalist covering environmental science stories for NPR and PBS for over a decade.


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