Published on October 18th, 2020 |
by Chanan Bos
October 18th, 2020 by Chanan Bos
There are rumors out there that Tesla* has now completely disbanded their PR department, because the company no longer responds to press inquiries. This was no surprise to us since we haven’t received responses for several months. But really, Tesla’s PR department has been difficult to reach for as long as it has existed because, unlike a traditional auto company, it faced challenges other companies don’t and the size of the department was not proportional to the media’s interest in Tesla.
It’s pretty crazy that with an event like Battery Day, not only was the press not invited, it was not allowed to ask questions either, not even by email after the event to clarify things for the news coverage that perhaps billions more people would see than the millions that watched the event on YouTube.
Tesla, however, likes to reinvent the wheel as a matter of habit, and to the constant surprise of skeptics, it gets a couple orders of magnitude more traction each time it does so. In this case — Tesla disbanding its PR department — it’s either simply giving up on the fight, or only step one of a new plan to reinvent the department. There is a lot that Tesla could do to reinvent PR as a whole, and in this article we will explore the problems, the unique challenges, and what Tesla could do to have a PR department that would suit the company as well as its eccentric CEO. All of this is written by a clean technology journalist who has been in contact with Tesla PR both via email and in real life.
First, however, we need to understand the nature of the struggle.
Elon Musk vs. the Traditional Business Model
Ever since Elon Musk became the CEO of Tesla, the company has had an internal struggle. On the one hand, Tesla is a business, first a private LLC and then a public PLC, following US and international laws and with departments hiring people that have worked and studied for the specific field the person in question is being hired for. The root of the issue is actually that all education is still stuck with the same basic methodologies originally used to train kids to work in factories, and even the SAT is still a leftover from World War 2 to see which kids shouldn’t be sent to the trenches — but that is a whole other can of worms we don’t want to get into at the moment.
The basic point is that certain portions of the company, especially the non-engineering departments, are stuck in traditional business company models and are asked to accommodate the free spirit of Elon Musk and his new, unorthodox, yet ever so successful methods of running a company. For example, it has been in the news numerous times that Tesla was found to not be doing right by its customers in some specific way, like a heartless large corporation typically would, until Elon Musk found out via Twitter and resolved the issue. It’s a constant tug of war within the company. You could even call it corporate split personality disorder. In our opinion, the PR department suffered from the same affliction.
Side note on heartless large corporations: In reality, it’s all just finance-driven decision-making and that is considered good business, but that does not always lead to what is right or best for the consumer.
The Unique Challenges Facing Tesla PR
So, we think that is the root cause of the issue (hopefully it all makes sense to you), but we haven’t really explored the unique challenges that Tesla’s PR team has faced in the past. As we all know, in 2018, in an effort to save money, Tesla fired many people with desk jobs that they considered redundant, a result of exponential company growth. Tesla has also downsized the number of outside contractors. At Giga Nevada, for example, only a few contractors that Tesla employees were willing to vouch for were allowed to stay.
Tesla also put a lot of effort into reducing the ranks of the middle management. You know the phrase “cut out the middle man.” Well, when it comes to inter-departmental communication, Tesla cut out the middle management. While we can’t confirm whether any employee is allowed to just contact any other employee and work on an issue directly as has been reported previously, even if that was an exaggeration, we do know that they have significantly more leeway here than they would have in a traditional company, a smart but also a bold move. Not having middle management, though, might have made it harder for Tesla PR to easily get the answers to questions they had from the outside world. We have not confirmed this by speaking to anyone at Tesla about it, but it seems more likely than not. While middle management may be seen as bloat, they can be very useful for a few things, including relaying information in useful and clear ways up, down, and around the organization.
Aside from all of that, as was said earlier, the size of Tesla’s PR department was not proportional to the media interest in Tesla. As a result they were overflowing with calls and emails. When a PR person took us on tour at the Fremont factory, they were constantly answering emails via phone and taking calls to respond verbally — what a workload! It appeared to be a nonstop flood of activity. You can imagine how difficult that might be.
Here is the first of two examples of some interesting challenges Tesla’s PR had to face: Elon Musk’s tweets. Imagine Elon sharing with the world what is on his mind at 10:00 am.
Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 7, 2018
How is an official PR department supposed to react to that? Well, even a whole day after the tweet, even to an outlet like the New York Times, Tesla PR declined to comment. The same could be said about the Joe Rogan weed incident. It may seem like a simple matter to outsiders like us, but imagine being on the PR team trying to determine how to respond to various questions, also keeping in mind that Elon is the CEO of SpaceX and may have other issues to consider there, as a contractor for the US government.
Here is the second and best example of the untraditional challenges Tesla’s PR team faced: the Tesla Semi event, particularly the fact that the Roadster would be unveiled at the end of the event.
Well, the PR department only found out about that minutes before the event started. At that time, did the PR department even know any of the specs? Were they prepared to answer the onslaught of questions about to arrive in the minutes, hours, and days afterwards? [Editor’s note: I don’t think this one is that big a deal or very complicated. Just say that what was presented at the event is all that’s going to be public for not. Though, I imagine the surprise did stress out some PR people, and it does demonstrate Chanan’s point that the PR team seemed to be in the dark on many matters. — Zach]
Finally, before moving on to the exploration of what a reinvented PR department would look like, I think a core aim that fits the Tesla ethos should be to become a more open and explanatory company. Sure, hold onto industrial secrets, but open up on more on the details of what is happening and what’s in the products in order to give the media more to chew on. Just imagine the articles we could write if we had all the facts! There are so many things that are not necessarily secret, but have simply not been explained.
The Blank Canvas of a Next-Generation PR Department
Right now, one of the main ways a PR department works with journalists is by answering questions sent to them by email. Information is exchanged behind closed doors and then an article is published. The issue is that the journalist who got an answer might have decided to take quotes out of context or only mention the negative side, or the journalist in question may have simply misunderstood the PR person. What was said behind those closed doors never sees the light of day.
A lot of the media is strapped for cash and depends on clicks. Media thus has a tendency to write clickbait articles, or to write negative articles because scandals drive clicks. This is always important to keep in mind. And let me tell you — it’s equally hard to not write a clickbait title as it is to not click on one, especially if it’s an article you put weeks of effort into and you know it may end up not being picked up by many readers as a result of a boring headline. (For example, many views come from Google, but Google shows an article to more people if it is getting a good clickthrough rate. If an article has a low clickthrough rate because the title is a bit boring, a lot fewer people will ever even see the headline.)
Some also like to argue that even bad press is good press, and they have a point. However, if the amount of bad press gets to the point that the clueless average Joe only thinks that Tesla is a fake company that is about to go “bankwupt” and its CEO is a lying druggie, yeah, at that point, the tables turn and bad press is absolutely not good for the company. Believe it or not, but in 2018, this is what many people not in the cleantech bubble “knew” about Tesla.
1. Tesla forum for journalists
What Tesla should do is simply never answer journalist questions via email. Instead, open a forum for journalists, bloggers, and YouTubers. Let all questions and answers be public. Quite often, when a person reads something negative about a company, they will wonder whether this is really true. However, since the information was handed over via email or a call, it is impossible to verify the accuracy of the quote, how it is interpreted, and what the actual context of the quote was. A forum would solve that problem. This would even work well with a small PR team. Let the journalists on the forum upvote the most important questions so that even a new question, if it’s important enough, reaches the front of the line quickly. Importantly, if the answer to the question is visible to all, the information is shared fairly with everyone.
2. Repurposing the Tesla blog
Sometimes a sensitive or complicated question might be asked. Rather than just answering the question, Tesla could write an article on the subject that explains the issue in good detail. This would also be a great opportunity for Tesla to communicate directly with its audience — not just journalists, but also fans and other stakeholders. It would all come directly from the horse’s mouth. It would explain the company in much more depth than is done today if it is a regular approach to complicated matters.
They just need some good writers knowledgeable about cleantech to write the article. (Hmm, not unlike the specialized journalists working for CleanTechnica, a site appreciated for its research and analysis, rigorous deep dives into a wide variety of complicated cleantech subjects, and decade of experience covering this sector.)
3. Fighting misinformation — this is how you do it
Other than Elon Musk pointing out misinformation that comes his way on Twitter, the company seldom battled it in a thorough way. When an article in the media has misinformation that stimulates FUD, sending that publication a request for a correction, which might simply be ignored, should only be the first step.
Perhaps some might remember a certain article in 2018 that claimed that the Tesla Fremont Factory was unsafe, mostly because of “the whims of Elon Musk that put people in danger.” According to that article, Elon Musk didn’t like the colors yellow and red, and so all safety lines and signs were removed. Furthermore, Elon supposedly didn’t like the beeping sounds forklifts and other vehicles made while driving, so he had them turned off. While it seemed unlikely, at the time, it left a lot of people, including us, wondering whether there was any truth to it. Having been to that factory about half a year later, I confirmed that none of it was true. In fact, we gained a much deeper appreciation for how Tesla handles safety while going through the factory. Just like in any factory, you needed to stick to safety zones where possible, you were routinely reminded to pay attention at all times, and extra attention was required in various parts of the factory that presented more risk. Tesla has indeed done a great job with this and probably does an even better job with factories it designs from the ground up that are a lot roomier.
If I was in the shoes of Tesla PR, that same day that news came out about all of these “concerns” about Tesla factory safety, I would have taken my professional camera and gimbal, gone into the factory, and filmed all of the yellow lines, the beeping of the forklifts, the warning signs and advisories, and the wide variety of safety measures the managers and staff were following. Hell, you could film it in a sarcastic or satirical way, publish the next day, and make fun of the publication that was willing to publish such blatant lies. It’s something that even a one-man team could do within less than 24 hours. This actually brings me to the next PR move, reinventing the YouTube channel.
4. Reinventing the YouTube channel
In addition to the forum and articles, I would also reinvent Tesla’s YouTube channel. Currently, that channel is filled with beautiful short clips that are basically like normal advertising, except Tesla doesn’t pay to have that advertising placed anywhere. Other than livestreaming and uploading events, this channel is mostly useless, whereas it could be Tesla’s best PR tool of all.
In Europe, Tesla made a short and rather boring clip of future Model 3 owners trying out the vehicle. The quality of how it was filmed and edited was top notch, done by a professional team hired for the occasion. It was, however, a snooze, just like some documentaries are.
YouTube channels that talk about Tesla, on the other hand, are very popular and are often 1–2 man teams. That YouTuber on occasion might have a cameraman, and some of the more successful channels have been able to hire a few extra people, but it is all pretty low budget — and awesome nonetheless. Our YouTube channel, which we will be resuming in the coming months, is also just a one-man team, consisting of just me. A lot of research, a lot of bloopers, and a lot of editing go into it.
Imagine even just a 2 person YouTube team knowledgeable about cleantech and cinematography, traveling between factories, filming the construction progress, interviewing employees, and more. Elon keeps talking about brilliant solutions to hard engineering problems. Why not take out the industrial secrets and show more of these? Describe the issue, the solution, where the inspiration came from, and the story of how that engineer burst into Elon’s meeting with a solution. [Editor’s note: I’ve dreamt of Tesla taking this approach for a bit more than 4 years — a small writing + video team, even just a duo, doing this in order to better explain the ways Tesla is so innovative, the people behind the scenes coming up with the wide variety of solutions Tesla employs, and just generally showing what is happening in the factories. There has perhaps never been so much public interest in manufacturing and engineering as has arisen because of broad fascination with Tesla. Millions of fans would gobble up this content like it’s chocolate ice cream! And it would much better explain Tesla to the journalists who have to cover the company for work. Elon Musk has many times given credit to the whole Tesla team for Tesla’s progress, but how many Tesla faces can you picture? This solution could bring the invisible stars behind Tesla to the eyes and ears of many fans of the company, and also grow the number of fans.]
Tesla has regular software updates. Run through all of the new features on camera and tell people about them. Tesla delivery centers around the end of the quarter have a huge push to deliver as many vehicles as possible. Make a timelapse of the cars departing the lot at one or more of these locations. I don’t know how many people travel with Elon on his personal jet for business trips when he moves between Berlin, Shanghai, Buffalo, Sparks, Fremont, Palo Alto, and Hawthorne, but he certainly could take a 2 person YouTube/PR team with him on some trips to save on budget.
Tesla has made a PR/Weibo team for the Chinese market, and from what I have seen, they have done something similar. Though, it seems to be done with even a much bigger budget than what I am proposing here.
I do hope the right people at Tesla read this or even Elon himself. If you have any questions or want to talk, you know how to contact us.
*Full disclosure: I own shares of Tesla [TSLA].
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