Tesla Slams the Brakes on PR

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The EV blog  Electrek broke the news last week that Tesla is dissolving its PR department.  Editor-in-chief  Fred Lambert’s story covered journalists’ growing frustrations with the comms team leading up to its shutdown. He wrote:

Electrek can confirm that Tesla has dissolved its PR department — technically becoming the first automaker who doesn’t talk to the press… The move has been confirmed.. at the highest level at Tesla with the source saying, ‘We no longer have a PR Team.”

The piece created a stir, and many others quickly covered the story. 

Without a PR team you don’t have an official statement; and people were left to speculate on the reasons. Many assumed that Elon Musk, a celebrity CEO with 43M Twitter followers, no longer wanted to suffer a sometimes unkind media; and thinks he can  frame the Tesla narrative on this own.

The attention for this story might not be surprising since it involves media and big tech.  It led to a lot of comments and chatter on social media, and teeth gnashing about the state and future of media and PR.

Obvious questions include:

  • Will others follow suit?  Those with known brands and large social media followings can directly reach large audiences.
  • Are the relevance and influence of media declining, when there’s record mistrust of the institution?
  • If media influence and relevance are in question, where does that leave PR?  

The media alarm over this also says something about how they cover tech.  The irony is that pitches from startups often go ignored by major media.  But take away PR and access to big tech – and there’s a panic. It’s because well-known brands are safer stories. And negative articles, of the techlash variety, seem to be good attention-grabbers.

PR Implications

These are some of the same types of questions PR has been facing since the advent of social media.  I’ve written often about the evolution of PR here.  And I just addressed some of these questions in my recent podcast appearance, with host Marti Sanchez, who also runs content and thought leadership firm Influence Podium.

Ragan’s PR Daily covered the Tesla story, with their take on implications for PR.

Sword & Script PR blogger Frank Strong was not enthused about the topic.  He tweeted:

I rarely cuss in writing. But if I read one more “what does it mean for PR now Elon Musk shut down Tesla’s PR shop” article, I might lose it in a profanity laced rant. It doesn’t mean anything. And it’s 2020, so I get a pass on cussing.

You go, Frank, that is effin’ awesome!

Comments from our Team

I asked our team at Fusion PR for their thoughts. Here were some responses:

It’s Musk. I wouldn’t jump to a trend for eccentric things that work for him.

Jordan Chanofsky, CEO

Well-known businesses, such as Fortune 100s and companies with celebrity leadership, can reach a certain point where bad press will not affect consumer habits. For example, Facebook has a ton of bad press, but the majority of people still have a Facebook account and will continue to use the company’s other platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp. 

Tesla’s elimination of a PR department is not an indication of a larger industry trend. Perhaps proactive media relations will end for a time at the company, but skillful communication with key stakeholders, such as employees, investors and more is essential and fundamental to businesses’ success.

Emily Fang

I guess with a Twitter following of that size, Elon Musk doesn’t have to worry about securing coverage of his company announcements.  But what is his plan for countering any negative stories that break? We know how volatile he can be.  Without a PR team to help him develop a level-headed response, we might wind up seeing a lot more “Sorry pedo guy”-style tweets.

Also, I don’t think this says anything new about the state of PR. Elon fancies himself an iconoclast who breaks the rules. Most corporations are very conservative and would never take an unnecessary risk like this. 

Mark Prindle
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