PR Failure #28: Tesla Cuts Its In-House PR Team

Aaron Blank / November 13, 2020

The PR industry’s mission is to serve the public’s needs by acting as a conduit between companies and clients and key audiences. This is the golden rule. It’s a fundamental lesson you learn when you first dip your toes into the world of PR, and one you carry with you throughout your career. Unless your career is with Tesla, that is.

Given a recent, high-profile cut by the electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, we’re witnessing a true PR failure in action. And now, we’re left pondering what lessons we can learn when one of the largest global brands tosses its PR operations to the curb.

The Story

From individual staffing changes to wide-ranging policy shifts and organizational restructuring, companies make all sorts of leaps and bounds in the name of growth and innovation.

For high-end electric vehicle maker Tesla, however, a run-of-the-mill corporate restructuring wasn’t on the agenda.

For months, journalists have reported difficulty reaching Tesla’s PR department, only made worse with departures of the company’s communications leadership. In October, electric vehicle trade publication Electrek reported that the brand’s PR department no longer exists. Tesla had officially dissolved its PR division, much to the chagrin of PR practitioners nationwide.

Known for its edgy, innovative, and futuristic corporate approach, Tesla’s confirmation didn’t quite come as a surprise. Even so, the uniquely Tesla style of secrecy around the decision is alarming.

Also alarming is that the recent move created a communications black hole at the company, making Tesla CEO Elon Musk the sole spokesperson and de facto PR department for a major international brand. Sure, Musk has nearly 40 million Twitter followers. But can he effectively serve all the functions of a PR department, from sharing company updates to communicating with the media and internal and external stakeholders to establishing trust with the public? We’ve been here before, and we’re not convinced.

Some laud the elimination as part of the brand’s strategy and Musk’s genius as a solo entrepreneur who’s made billions.

We’re not buying that, either. And many are rightfully concerned and confused alongside us.

 

 

 

The Failure

Goodbye, PR! Hello, difficult lessons. When a major international company eliminates its PR department, what is left behind? In the limbo that Tesla and Elon Musk created, there’s quite a lot of teachable moments.

PR is more than media relations or major announcements.
Think about PR strategically. Its role wraps around and extends across all aspects of your organization. Good PR protects your brand and reputation and engages your brand’s stakeholders, employees, and customers, all while promoting your objectives and vision.

Don’t rely on one person to be the face of your PR.
As founder of Tesla, Elon Musk may seem a logical choice as Tesla’s primary spokesperson, the company employs more than 48,000 people globally. The best brands and companies resolve issues with the help of a team and are informed by a variety of people and backgrounds. Identify secondary spokespeople and establish distinct brand communications channels separate from your company’s leadership, lest the cult of personality surrounding your leaders could distract from your company’s main goals.

Media relations is a two-way street.
If you are unhappy with how the media is covering your company, change your media relations strategy. Don’t just go silent. Elon Musk is known for his personal opposition to the media, claiming that media outlets covering Tesla treat his company unfairly. Positive media coverage isn’t earned by giving journalists the silent treatment, however.

Brand transparency is critical.
PR helps your brand demonstrate its commitments to key audiences, building trust among the general public. In shirking its PR department, Tesla is placing itself above the idea of transparency – and the trust of the public. It risks alienating customers with no mechanism for effective response.

 

Action Items

Develop a strategic communications plan aligned with your business goals, one that goes beyond obtaining positive media coverage.
Take a look at your business objectives – how can PR and communications efforts specifically help you get there? Include quantifiable metrics, evaluate frequently, and adjust accordingly. If your plan’s not working or results aren’t to your liking, identify action steps to improve.

Control your narrative with intentional messaging, centering transparency and focusing on your customers.
As consumers are more often choose brands based on their values, engagement with and responsiveness to your core audiences and customers is a significant factor in your bottom line. Transparency builds trust and engagement. PR team members can craft messaging to emphasize transparency, providing clear notice about company updates, including restructures that impact internal and external audiences.

Establish a two-way media relations strategy.
Take time to establish and build relationships with reporters, especially ones who cover your industry or brand. Remember that journalists are human, too – and that solid relationships start one conversation at a time. If you’re a business owner or leader, this is important but often difficult to do alone – PR teams can help you strategize where you focus your energy and share company updates while lightening the load.

The Path Forward

Tesla’s reputation as a bold, forward-thinking company allows it the benefit of doubt, even as the brand faces ongoing crises and unveils announcements without the support of a PR or communications team. Ultimately, though, Tesla’s decision is an evasion of corporate responsibility to the public and a reckless PR failure.

Wise and savvy PR and business professionals will avoid repeating Tesla’s mistakes, with attention to some key action items and an alternative focus on two core functions of our industry – transparency and trust. PR and strategic communications can guide and reinforce these along the way.

With lessons from this PR failure behind our own wheels, we, too, can drive our own paths toward professional fearless thinking, protected and promoted by effective communications and sound audience engagement.

Until next month,

Aaron Blank
CEO + President
The Fearey Group

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Aaron Blank

CEO & President, Partner

Aaron has been engaged in the conversation since the late 1990s, where he discovered his love of media while working at local radio stations. After five years as a radio reporter, anchor, producer and promoter in New York and Connecticut, he and his wife, Lacey, ventured west to begin his career in PR. Soon he caught the attention of industry legend Pat Fearey and the rest is history. Two decades later, as CEO and owner of The Fearey Group, Aaron leads with tireless enthusiasm and contagious drive. In 2014, he became the next generation owner of the firm. He takes his breakfast at 4:30 AM and never eats lunch alone. You can find him working to connect the next business with tomorrow’s leader.

Personal philosophy: do something amazing every day and be fearless!