Enthusiasts of Tesla or followers of Elon Musk probably will not be alone in wondering what the strategy of Tesla's public relations is, as it bounces from PR masterstrokes to PR disaster. Musk's Twitter use is famous (or infamous)? What other business leader would sack his entire PR department? So what are the secrets of Tesla's public relations strategy?
Compared to the other prominent players, Tesla appears to thrive in unconventionalness. Innovation is at the core of its philosophy. Its marketing strategy is to build a brand rather than sell individual products. It famously dismissed its PR department in a surprise move. Musk's direct communication with the public and his openness to customers is unique, and he now acts as Tesla’s PR.
Twitter is Elon's playground, and Musk's use of Twitter is infamous. In 2020 alone, he posted 3,684 tweets. Elon Musk's Twitter feed is a legendary PR tool for Tesla - from stock synopses to product release details. His upfront tweets can become headline news in themselves, attracting attention from all walks of life, and are covered by journalists worldwide. Elon uses Twitter as his primary media outlet, and to significant effect. There is no need for press releases. Everyone he needs to reach uses Twitter; if they're not, it won't matter. They will find out anyway. He uses Twitter to build the brands of both Tesla and SpaceX. Few high-profile business leaders use this strategy, but it's very clever. There is a sense of silliness he brings to Twitter, as if he's not taking himself seriously. He's humorous and even replies to individual followers on occasion. Also, information coming straight from the mouth of the CEO is highly credible compared to other sources.
For a CEO, his strategies are pretty unconventional. For example, Elon Musk was alleged to have made misleading tweets about a potential move to take Tesla private. The tweets caused the stock price to jump and created disruption in the market. As a result, he was charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission and paid a $20 million fine. Musk also had to resign from his title as Chairman of Tesla for three years. His tweet had drastic consequences and showed he does not follow the traditional model of CEO behavior.
Musk acts as a one-person PR department, and the Tesla CEO enjoys a cult of personality. While most CEOs of hugely successful international companies need to be careful what they say and do, Elon can say or do whatever he wants. And it only seems to benefit Tesla.
In 2021 Elon Musk public relations was at it again. He created a Twitter poll asking whether he should sell 10% of Tesla stock - a decision worth $20 billion if Musk sold the stock. But does he want Twitter users to make such an important financial decision? Was it another PR stunt? Several articles were written around the world as a result of this tweet. It was, of course, a fake poll. But Tesla got free PR exposure, and millions of people believed him. Job done. Elon enjoys a cult-like following. He appears to have a close relationship with his followers, replying to them frequently. As a marketer, he knows that social media can be a powerful tool. Asking the public for their opinion helped market him as a 'people person', despite his vast wealth. He is the lone voice of the company and Tesla media relations.
Tesla doesn't run commercials or have a public relations or advertising department. Arguably, it doesn't need them. Due to an extra vocal CEO helping them become one of the most talked-about companies in the world, spending on advertising seems redundant. It's no longer just about selling cars for Tesla but a lifestyle. The company promotes a healthy lifestyle in how it advertises its vehicles. There is no television advertising or direct-to-consumer marketing. Since no other car companies compete with them, they don't need to launch expensive television campaigns. Instead, they focus on telling their story in different ways. Their PR strategy relies instead on word-of-mouth. The way Tesla differentiates its products goes beyond design. The company wants everyone to know that its products are environmentally friendly. Moreover, they've created a community dedicated to sharing their love of cars. Tesla's popularity has increased as a result.
This is essential to any business. It's always a good idea to temper fires rather than risk letting them burn further. Tesla's old PR team was once famously good at suppressing a crisis if Musk made announcements or claims that were possibly exaggerated. They responded to journalists with more context and greater accuracy. It potentially helped avert greater problems.
Musk himself has become somewhat adept at crisis handling. In 2019, when demonstrating the strength and durability of the armored glass on the new CyberTruck, a metal ball (intended to bounce off the window) cracked it. Musk's immediate reaction during this live stream was to comment, "at least it didn't go through." He also calmly commented that there was "room for improvement." Many would have tried to explain the car was faulty and have it taken off the stage. Musk, however, carried on. He took to social media to clarify that the weakened glass window was the result of the sledgehammer smashing the door prior. Musk also posted a video showing the same experiment before the presentation. Quickly clarifying the situation is the typical first step in crisis communication management when PR stunts go wrong.
The above incident resulted in videos of the demonstration being re-posted on social media. For most,, it would have been a PR nightmare that would need massive amounts of explaining. Instead, Musk used Twitter to explain what went wrong. They then used it to expand the brand by creating the Cybertruck glass shirt for its store, which had the smashed-up glass on the front of a black t-shirt. A brilliant way to turn an adverse event around.
In February 2018, he made history by successfully launching his Tesla Roadster into space on board the Falcon rocket. The launch was watched by hundreds of thousands of people in Florida, plus millions more online, by live stream on YouTube. He set the stakes high by saying ahead of the launch that there was "about a 50% chance" that the flight would fail and destroy the car. He made the most of this unique PR opportunity. As launch day approached, he kept his millions of followers updated on the rocket's flight plan and delays caused by high-altitude winds. He also offered a live stream of the event, promoting Tesla by stating, "apparently, there is a car in orbit around Earth." He also used the opportunity to promote SpaceX simultaneously. It was a win-win.
The TeslaX model has an option on the dashboard that allows the car to synchronize its headlights and open its doors to the sound of music, giving it the appearance of dancing to a classical music track selected by Elon. It was annoying, perhaps, but it succeeded in getting people to talk about the brand. It certainly got the attention of many people who had no clue what was so special about the vehicles.
They launched the car both in real life, in China, and in a video game called Game of Peace simultaneously with Chinese company Tencent. This was to promote that Tesla's Model X and S are now equipped with video game hardware with almost as much processing power as a PlayStation 5. An impressive achievement. Tesla has been investing a lot of time in creating its own video games and has recently hired game developers in Austin, USA. A massive marketing campaign was launched by Tesla and Tencent, which owns a significant portion of Tesla. A large crate appeared in real life at a mall in Shanghai after Tesla released video game footage of large containers being dropped off in the sky.
In 2019, Musk declared that the company would have an autonomous taxi service by the end of 2020 called Robotaxi. He also asserted that in the future, people wouldn't even be allowed to drive their own cars because they'll be unsafe compared with autonomous vehicles. During an event for investors in 2019 at the HQ, Musk declared that the company would have an autonomous taxi service by the end of 2020. Another bold claim, which some auto executives immediately called out as overly optimistic and others as a publicity stunt. This might be true, but that's the whole point of Musk's approach. Tesla operates in this manner. They are not afraid to make announcements that get a lot of attention; if you miss it, that's okay. Musk himself even said he does not achieve things as soon as he says or would like but that they will "get it done".
When it comes to speech, anything goes. When Musk agreed to buy Twitter in April 2022, he said he would "unlock" the company's potential by advancing free speech and "defeating the spam bots." Although not technically a Tesla campaign, this acquisition did help to promote the brand. He stated that free speech is the bedrock of any democracy. He also added, "Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated." Although still an ongoing acquisition, this will likely work well for Tesla, with Musk's maverick personality at the forefront.
In 2020, Musk fired his PR department in what was seen as a "new first in the industry" and relatively outlandish. Tesla also stopped replying to PR inquiries and ceased to give comments when asked. They always had a considerably smaller PR department than other giant motor firms. Despite this, and according to many reporters, they worked well under the pressure of a manager who often disliked specific reporting in the press, and they worked to correct a lot of misinformation and create some excellent PR content.
There is plenty of demand for Tesla cars, so you could argue that the PR department is unnecessary. Twitter alone fuels enough publicity to justify having no PR department. So why bother? This move will also save costs. Not being conventional also serves to help the brand in terms of its innovative and unusual nature.
Musk has often angered people with some of the things he's said. Historically, Musk has "overstated" facts about Tesla. The document obtained by legal transparency group PlainSite contradicts his recent statement that their cars would be capable of driving themselves anywhere, under any conditions, without human supervision by 2021. There are times when a PR department would have been beneficial.
When a Tesla car was involved in a fatal crash in 2021, Musk responded by saying, "no one was driving." At the time, they didn't have autonomous vehicles on the road - only cars with driver-assist features. Although the press presented it as an autonomous vehicle accident, this wasn't the case. However, a PR team could have helped him state this more tactfully.
Some statements made have caused multiple concerns to shareholders. Musk wiped $14 billion from Tesla's value by mentioning the company's stock prices were too high. In addition to his ownership of the company falling by $3 billion, the ill-advised action resulted in investors withdrawing capital. This is far from ideal. With new probes being opened by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a recall of nearly 300,000 models in China, Tesla could undoubtedly benefit from a PR department.
If a team of knowledgeable professionals were effectively running damage control, giving expert advice, and not ignoring reporter questions or inquiries, these needlessly damaging statements wouldn't occur. One of the reasons for the dismissal of the PR team was that they felt they were often misinterpreted and misquoted by the press. But this would be more of a reason to have a PR team. The role of the PR team is to provide reporters with accurate information. On reflection, it would seem best if they did have some form of PR in place.
It would be untrue to say that Tesla's unconventional approach hasn't helped them. But this approach is not without its drawbacks. His actions on Twitter have increasingly alienated stakeholders and impacted Tesla's stock price and reputation, and even Tesla may not be immune to this damage. This is the danger of one man being the lone voice of a brand. Having a PR team in place would eliminate this unnecessary risk, help control the narrative, and bring Tesla's innovativeness and uniqueness to the fore instead of controversial tweets and statements that only serve to distract from these.