President of the Bradford Dalton Group, Jeff is a former journalist with 30+ years of experience as a public relations professional.
Elon Musk — the closest thing America has to a real, live John Galt — is always in the news, but especially so recently because of his stint hosting Saturday Night Live. The funny thing is that the American capitalist with arguably the highest public profile in the world fired his entire PR department late last year. This bold move was, as Electrek reported, “a new first in the industry.” And, indeed, it is inconceivable that any other major car company would operate this way.
This April, about six months after dismantling Tesla’s PR department, Musk doubled down on his decision and rejected the idea of bringing back the department because, “He doesn’t believe in ‘manipulating public opinion,’” — which is odd coming from a fellow whose addiction to Twitter is on par with Donald Trump’s, and whose tweets are nearly as effective as Trump’s at swaying opinions and moving markets.
So, should Tesla have a PR department or not? I’ll examine both sides of the argument in this article.
Why Tesla Needs a PR Department
• To Provide Reporters With Accurate Information
One of Musk’s beefs with the news media is that he believes reporters often report wrong information about Tesla. One of the primary jobs of in-house public relations professionals is to provide journalists with verified, accurate information about the company and to request corrections of any erroneous information published. This function alone seems like a compelling reason to bring back Tesla’s PR department — or, indeed, for any large company to have a PR department.
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• To Cultivate Better Relations With the Press
Let’s face it: Journalists are people and, like everyone else, they have opinions, and their opinions may run counter to the story you want to tell. In my experience, you can increase your chances of fair coverage if you invest some time into getting to know, on a personal level, the journalists who cover your industry.
• To Nip Negative Stories in the Bud – or at Least Get Tesla’s Side Out
Again, in my experience, when you have established a relationship with the news media, reporters are much more likely to call you for comment on a negative story — and give you enough time to formulate a cogent response. The fact is, journalists want to get it right; it’s their reputation on the line, too. A PR department can help them get it right.
• To Prevent Musk From Saying Things That Hurt the Brand
Musk has been known to “overstate” facts about Tesla. For instance, he recently said that Tesla cars would be able to drive themselves anywhere, under any conditions, without human supervision, by the end of 2021 — a statement flatly contradicted by internal Tesla documents obtained by legal transparency group PlainSite.
Musk has also been known to say some pretty baseless things on Twitter.
If Tesla had a policy that all official communications had to be run through a PR department, these kinds of needlessly damaging statements would not happen. Of course, this piece of advice applies to any CEO — they all need someone to protect them from themselves when it comes to media relations.
Why Tesla Is Fine Without a PR Department
• They Sell Cars as Fast as They Can Make Them
The fact is, no matter how many people Musk insults on Twitter or how many negative stories are written about Tesla, the company can’t make cars fast enough to meet demand. It seems that a PR department is not needed to market the product. Frankly, if your company’s sales are as robust as Tesla’s, you should probably focus on meeting demand instead of trying to generate more of it.
• Musk Is Tesla’s PR Department, and His Cult of Personality Works for Tesla
In effect, Musk is a one-man PR department for Tesla who immediately communicates with everyone he needs to reach via Twitter. And, since the information is coming straight from the CEO, it is highly credible. However, it is a rare CEO who can do what Musk has done. I’ve certainly never met one in my 35 years of advising CEOs. Don’t try this at home. I’ve seen companies destroyed by CEOs who thought they could say whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, to whomever.
• Not Having a PR Department Makes Musk and Tesla Look Iconoclastic, Which Helps the Brand
By forgoing a PR department, Tesla looks like a “different kind of company” — one that eschews the corporate trappings of traditional, Detroit-based auto companies, which don’t have a sterling reputation. It also plays to Musk’s cult-like status, which helps the brand. (Again, I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home.)
Bottom line: Though Tesla seems to be doing fine without a PR department today, you never know what’s around the corner. Assuring that a company is prepared for a crisis is a key responsibility of PR departments. Without this precaution in place, Tesla is vulnerable to a disaster that can’t be handled with a tweet from the CEO. But, more than this, though the company is successful today, who knows what opportunities it is missing because it turns a deaf ear to the news media. In this PR pro’s opinion, Musk is making a mistake, but like John Galt, he may have the last laugh. Time will tell.
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Author: Jeff Bradford, Forbes Councils Member