After touching on this question in my newsletter, I decided the topic deserves a deeper dive.
First, some stage setting.
Electrek broke the news on Oct. 6 that Tesla eliminated its internal PR team: “If you’re a reporter who isn’t getting a response from Tesla, don’t take it personally, because it’s due to the automaker having dissolved its PR team.”
Naturally, this triggered a lively discussion around Tesla’s media profile, the future of communications and the meaning of life.
Let’s start with the easy one. This will have absolutely 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 feel on safe ground in saying 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?”
Switching back to the recent hoopla, Musk says the hell with the media. I’m getting rid of our PR department so journalists will have to fend for themselves.
Does 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, I don’t expect the absence of a PR function to change Tesla’s high profile in the media. Of course, journalists will continue 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?
This is where 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 now disappear. No question, the quality of media coverage on Tesla will decline.
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.