The media has questions for Tesla.
After eliminating its PR department last year, Tesla doesn’t appear to have answers.
The Los Angeles Times story “Tesla’s Handling of Breaking Bug in Public Self-Driving Test Raises Alarms” reflects the latest missives aimed at the auto maker:
Tesla pushed out a new version of the experimental software suite it calls Full Self-Driving to approved drivers Oct. 23 through an “over the air” update.
The next morning, Tesla learned the update had altered cars’ behavior in a way the company’s engineers hadn’t intended.
In a recall report to federal safety regulators Friday, Tesla put the problems like this: The company discovered a software glitch that “can produce negative object velocity detections when other vehicles are present.”
In everyday English, Tesla’s automatic braking system was engaging for no apparent reason, causing cars to rapidly decelerate as they traveled down the highway, putting them at risk of being rear-ended.
Rewinding the tape to October 2020, we learned that Tesla eliminated its internal PR team. Naturally, this triggered a lively discussion around Tesla’s media profile, the future of communications and the meaning of life.
At the time I pointed out that this will have zero impact on the communications industry. There is only one Elon Musk. His disenchantment with the media has been boiling for some time.
Back in 2018, he tweeted that the media picks on Tesla because the company doesn’t spend money on advertising.
He went on to infer that the makers of gas guzzlers and fossil fuel companies get more favorable media attention because they pump millions of advertising dollars into the media’s coffers.
Our crack research team challenged Musk’s hypothesis, analyzing media coverage from 2013 to 2017. Putting sentiment of the coverage to the side, we looked at the raw media coverage on Tesla versus two sets of competitors — fossil fuel companies and car companies. The following data sets were pulled from the Factiva database, top sources in the U.S. stripping out news releases and wire service stories.
You can see the results from big oil.
The data suggests Tesla has been crushing these companies in the media since 2015 and enjoyed better than a 2X advantage in 2017, a gap that has probably increased over time.
Turning our attention to auto sector, I selected two premium brands that have been fortifying their respective hills for some time.
No surprise that the premium car makers achieve a higher media profile than the oil producers. What would you rather read about, the evils of fossil fuel or how BMW has turned to leather craftsmen in Portovenere, Italy, for its latest 7 Series?
Still, we see Tesla in a dominant position against brands that have been around forever.
Again, we didn’t break down the articles by sentiment, but I believed that the vast majority of coverage on Telsa over the years has been positive with some media properties swooning over Musk as if on a gondola in Venice. He’s graced countless magazine covers ranging from Fortune to Rolling Stone.
In spite of the data, why does Musk feel that the media is out to get him? Perhaps it goes back to the science showing that when a person gets a performance review that is 90% positive, the person will often fixate on the 10%. “What do you mean I need to delegate more? Can you provide examples?”
In short, Musk said the hell with the media. I’m getting rid of our PR department so journalists will have to fend for themselves.
Did this decision serve Tesla’s business interests?
Can Tesla operate just as effectively — or even more effectively — minus a PR function?
When it comes to sheer visibility in the media, the absence of a PR function hasn’t changed Tesla’s high profile in the media. Of course, journalists have continued to write about the car maker with the highest valuation in the world.
Yet what about the quality of the stories? What about the accuracy of the stories? What about the stories that Telsa wants told?
And what about situations like the current one in which the media is calling out a pesky bug in the auto’s breaking system? We don’t know Tesla’s perspective which would have added another dimension of context.
I still believe what I shared a year ago, that Musk’s attempt to punish journalists ends up hurting himself and Tesla. Those gray-area questions journalists typically ask PR now become black and white answers. Those feel-good stories pitched without the benefit of hard news will start to disappear.
This would damage any company, but it particularly hurts a company like Tesla. Advertising and various types of paid promotion tend to drive consumer brands with one exception. The brand building behind high-cost products with complexity largely depends on earned media.
The combination of price and complexity causes consumers to lean heavily on earned media to sort through the options and ultimately seek affirmation that they’re making a good choice. For products in the upper-right square like a Tesla, earned media is a critical component baked into the brand.
Given Musk’s Jobs-like obsession with quality, you would think he would apply the same thinking to communications.
But to borrow from auto vernacular, the man has a blind spot.