Elon Musk Needs a Tesla PR Team

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Elon Musk went on Kara Swisher’s podcast recently and complained about the media coverage of Battery Day and I have to say, Elon, in the highly unlikely event that you’re reading this, hire a real honest-to-God comms shop.

Let me hit you, dear reader, with some inside baseball. You probably know that just about every large company, including every automaker, has some kind of communications/public relations department.

Tesla, it seems, does not.

Update: Now we know it does not, not anymore.

I wrote that “it seems, does not” sentence/joke last week, when I started this draft, before other higher-priority tasks caused me to shelve this op-ed until now. As noted above, we now have reports circulating that Tesla has disbanded the P.R. department, or, at least, let it die on the vine via attrition. Meaning that what I wrote as a joke appears to actually be reality now.

Our frenemies across the virtual way at Jalopnik also ripped Tesla PR (or lack thereof) this week, while this draft was sitting open in Word on my PC. And now, there is no Tesla PR.

Talk about accidentally predicting the future. Maybe if I joke that I’ll win the lottery this week…

Ahem. Anyway, Tesla’s PR problem has been talked about for years. Green-car journo extraordinaire John Voelcker even wrote in mild defense of Tesla on the subject of PR some time back: Voelcker noted that Tesla’s Silicon Valley mindset, disdain from the motoring press towards EVs in the Aughts, and the brand’s popularity meant that maybe Tesla didn’t need to do PR like the legacy OEMs.

(Full disclosure: I have written for Green Car Reports in the past, when I was freelance, and Voelcker edited my work there.)

Voelcker makes some good points, although I think Tesla still needs a P.R. department as a bulwark against some very fair criticism it has received in recent years. I’ll get to that in a minute.

I want to make it clear that I am not whining about Tesla’s lack of P.R./lack of response to media inquiries makes our job as journalists harder. It does, but you probably don’t care about that, and the proper place to bitch and moan about it is over happy-hour drinks at some auto-show party. Not here. It’s too inside baseball, even for this site, which has made its bones at times in the past by peeking behind the automotive-journalism curtain.

Besides, any obstacle that Tesla’s silence presents is mild. It would be lovely to review their product, but that’s only four cars we’d review in a year, out of 50+ vehicles. And it’s not that hard to find accurate specs/product info elsewhere. And while it would be nice to try to seek comment from Tesla directly when we write about the company – especially critically/negatively – it’s not usually necessary.

Not to mention that Musk often has given an interview or sent a tweet that’s applicable that we can reference.

Nah, it’s not about us. It’s about Tesla.

Let’s take a look at what Musk said. “The press coverage of this event was sad. Most of the press coverage was a sad reflection of their understanding, really.” And: “I wasn’t trying to convince people that much — the results will speak for themselves.”

Then there was this, regarding manufacturing: “This is something that the average person has no idea about whatsoever. Smart people on Wall Street generally have not the faintest clue about manufacturing and how difficult it is. They think that once you have come up with a prototype, that’s the hard part and everything else is trivial copying after that. It’s not. It’s perhaps 1 percent of the problem. Large-scale manufacturing, especially of a new technology, it’s something between 1,000 and 10,000 percent harder than the prototype.”

Let’s put aside the schadenfreude that every pundit and industry analyst is likely experiencing based on that last paragraph – Musk was warned about how hard it is to build cars at scale, with quality. Especially with a relatively new technology involved. Yet any pundit who pointed that out was brushed aside as a hater of Musk, or of EVs, or a short-seller of Tesla stock, or dismissed as someone who didn’t understand Musk’s vision. They were derided as negative Nancys for merely pointing out reality – that no matter how smart and ambitious Musk is, it was unlikely that a small company with limited experience building cars would burst onto the scene and beat the big boys at a game they’d been playing for a century. Not impossible, but unlikely.

Instead, let me point out the two quotes above that. While Musk was apparently believing (incorrectly, in my view) that the press coverage was insufficiently deferential due to a lack of “understanding” of the tech he talked about at Battery Day, it also came across to me that Musk was unhappy with the quantity of coverage.

Again, it’s not the press’s job to promote Tesla. THAT IS WHAT A P.R. TEAM IS FOR. The press’s job is to report honestly and accurately on what Musk said/promised/did, while a smaller part of the press is tasked with opining about Tesla’s announcements, or with analyzing what they mean.

As for the amount of coverage itself, well, the event was mostly aimed at Tesla insiders like investors, enthusiasts, and owners. Mainstream media outlets and most automotive media outlets weren’t going to dive too deep into the weeds because we were looking for the news that’s most important and/or relevant to our audiences. We decide that, not Musk. For us, anyway, the news was about the planned Plaid trim of the Model S, as well as some of the basics concerning the new battery tech. A publication like Green Car Reports or our corporate sibling HybridCars.com might go deeper into the tech.

I don’t get how Musk still doesn’t understand this. It’s not OUR job to cheerlead. That’s what a comms team is for! To try to put a message out that favors the brand. Our job is to report the truth. The P.R. team’s job is to market the brand.

Yes, sure, we in the press can be harsh and negative, and all that even if the P.R. team is great at its job and easy for journos to work with. That’s because, again, we aren’t supposed to go easy on a company even if we like the P.R. team. But if Tesla was serious about public relations, it could at least give itself a chance to advocate for, well, itself.

Voelcker pointed out in his piece that Tesla didn’t need P.R. because it had a legion of fanboys/fangirls and “stans” who’d enthusiastically evangelize for the brand. While it’s true that even now, after years of manufacturing/quality issues and criticism for overselling Autopilot’s autonomous abilities, there are still plenty of brand evangelists out there, the bloom has come off the rose somewhat since Voelcker’s piece published.

Tesla and Musk can’t just rely on the “stans” anymore, not even Electrek, which we’ve reamed out as a non-objective, Tesla water-carrying outlet in the past.

I don’t care if Tesla loans us cars – we can do a test drive at a Tesla store or arrange a loan from a willing owner. I don’t care if Tesla can’t confirm a fact – nine times out of 10 we’ll be able to confirm it another way. I don’t care if Tesla doesn’t send us press releases – I can find them on their site.

To be fair, as Jalopnik pointed out, Tesla P.R. was once engaging. I worked with the company on a few stories, including short drives of the Model S, at a previous job. The P.R. folks were polite and professional. But Tesla’s commitment to engaging with the media has seemed to fade over the years.

Indeed, Musk was complaining about Battery Day coverage – but Tesla had little on its site before the event. Not even a teaser press release. There doesn’t appear to be anything on the company’s blog or press pages, unless I missed something. It’s not good P.R. to not promote a big event that you want the media to cover. Basic stuff.

The lack of a comms team for Tesla makes my job just a teeny, tiny bit harder, but not significantly so. It makes Elon Musk’s job a LOT harder. The fact that Musk, who has courted positive press for SpaceX, either doesn’t understand, or more likely, doesn’t care, is astounding.

[Image: Tesla]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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3 of 12 comments
  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Oct 07, 2020

    "it was unlikely that a small company with limited experience building cars would burst onto the scene and beat the big boys at a game they’d been playing for a century" Tesla is playing a *very* different game than the "established" OEM's. (Judge for yourself who is playing better at their chosen game.)

  • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Oct 08, 2020

    PR departments have several functions which go beyond advertising. Tesla doesn't need a PR department to promote itself, but I will agree that they need a PR department to answer questions, field complaints, and manage news. This role cannot - and should not - be fulfilled via Mr Musk's tweets. Tim - as you say, SpaceX has a functioning PR department that is quite busy, and Mr Musk has few public comments about its operations. I don't get why the need for this is lost at Tesla, except that SpaceX isn't catering to the public. So Mr Musk must think he can cover the public comm for Tesla with personal tweets. As for Tesla's manufacturing: Their spotty quality is a big reason I'm staying away from them for now. But they didn't start building cars in a vacuum; they hired a lot of designers and mfg people from *other* mfrs. Tesla didn't just fill a room with a bunch of gamers and charge them with building cars. On the other hand, I've become convinced that these same people have been micromanaged by Mr Musk, limiting their effectiveness in design and quality manufacturing. The lack of repeatability in their build quality is astonishing, which tells me that Mr Musk overruled the guys who wanted to take a careful approach to design and build quality that would eliminate such problems.

    • Mcs Mcs on Oct 08, 2020

      I really think the quality is being fixed via the new manufacturing processes in the new plants. In addition to the improved processes, I'm hoping that with more production capacity, they can slow down Fremont's lines a bit. That should fix the problems there. I grew up in a family well versed in auto manufacturing and their biggest complaint seemed to be related to line speed causing quality issues. I think the other big complaint was about suppliers.

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X As much problems as I had with my '96 Chevy Impala SS.....I would love to try one again. I've seen a Dark Cherry Metallic one today and it looked great.
  • Susan O’Neil There is a good reason to keep the Chevrolet Malibu and other 4 door family sedans! You can transport your parents and other somewhat handicapped people comfortably and safety! If someone can stand and pivot you can put them in your car. An armrest in the back seat is appreciated and a handle above the door! Oh…and leather seats so your passenger can slide across the seat! 😊Plus, you can place a full sized wheelchair or walker in the trunk! The car sits a little lower…so it’s doable! I currently have a Ford Fusion and we have a Honda Accord. Our previous cars were Mercury Sables-excellent for transporting handicapped people and equipment! As the population ages-sedans are a very practical choice! POV from a retired handicapped advocate and daughter! 😊
  • Freddie Remember those ads that say "Call your doctor if you still have...after four hours"?You don't need to call your doctor, just get behind the wheel of a CUV. In fact, just look at one.I'm a car guy with finite resources; I can't afford a practical car during the week plus a fun car on the weekend. My solution is my Honda Civic Si 4 door sedan. Maybe yours is a Dodge Charger (a lot of new Chargers are still on dealer lots).
  • Daniel J Interesting in that we have several weeks where the temperature stays below 45 but all weather tires can't be found in a shop anywhere. I guess all seasons are "good enough".
  • Steve Biro For all the talk about sedans vs CUVs and SUVs, I simply can’t bring myself to buy any modern vehicle. And I know it’s only going to get worse.