Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast
Elon Musk has recently fired everyone in Tesla’s Internal Public Relations department. Similar to Donald Trump, Elon Musk has taken to communicating directly via Twitter on behalf of their company or administration. This has both positive and negative effects, but this could be a strategy for you to employ if you don’t have a big company or can’t afford an agency.
With the Tesla PR department disintegrated, it was apparent that Elon Musk didn’t always see eye to eye with the team. Apparently, he was always upset with them if Tesla received any negative inquiries or press coverage, even though the PR team was only doing their job of responding to the media inquiries rather than writing the articles themselves. A journalist writing for a publication called Electrek said they had always been impressed by the Tesla spokespeople, and one of the things that stood out was that everybody internally knew about Tesla’s mission and the larger mission to transform the world through sustainable energy and transportation. I wonder whether this is part of the secret of Elon Musk, that he has clearly defined his purpose, and everybody understands that and can articulate it.
Tesla’s PR issue
The press had been talking to the public relations teams in America, Europe, and Asia. In the last couple of months, the inquiries have been going unanswered, and Tesla hasn’t been commenting or contributing to any stories. It seems that the only official response to anything comes directly from Elon Musk on Twitter. Like Trump, the organization has got one voice directly from the CEO to the followers, and if you don’t follow them on Twitter, then you don’t get to know. That’s Elon Musk’s choice. Surrounding oneself with people who agree with you could be pleasant, but eventually, that can also lead to trouble.
One of Elon Musk’s challenges is that he’s an extremely busy man. He doesn’t have the bandwidth to answer the inquiries that people have for him. But also, he seems to be really responsive to fans that praise him and his cars as well as to those who don’t challenge his views. As most great leaders will tell you, it’s the challenges from those people around them that create greater thinking and greater sense of clarity. But as we found from Donald Trump, anybody that doesn’t agree with a leader like him and also like Elon Musk is considered the opposition. As we’ve seen with COVID, however, events will uncover the truth. Even great dictators have found that they can’t escape events forever.
In the case of Tesla, the question about the information being circulated will become even greater, because the only person who’s sharing information in an unedited and unvarnished way is the CEO. And with the comments about the stock valuation or the cars, as a CEO, Elon Musk has one vision or one grasp of events, but they may or may not be the correct ones, so the public deserves to have answers. The point is that if you’re not following Elon Musk, you’re not the public that matters, but customers do matter. And so, it will be interesting to see or to know what the strategy is to communicate with Tesla customers. Presumably, the customer communication is excellent, but what about those people that are undecided? Well, public relations, media events, and so on have always been a great way for those people considering a purchase to do some background reviews.
Apple and customer evangelism
Maybe Elon Musk is going to rely on the evangelists. In the SPEAK|pr program and the Mastermind, the goal is to convert people from being ignorant of your brand through to being aware to being interested to then being engaged as customers and then to becoming evangelists. This is a strategy that seems to work extremely well for Apple. Apple doesn’t engage a lot in press relations. Obviously, they let their products do the work, and it’s the customers who become evangelists that are able to promote the products, so Apple is a pioneer of the path Tesla is taking. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, speaks directly via Twitter and video. The precursor to the iPhone 12 was a video, so they come across as advocates of what might be called silent treatment when it comes to their PR campaigns. They say very little about their products until the product is launched. They say what they want when they want to and to whomever they want to. They’ve been doing that for quite some time, and it’s been pretty successful. On the other hand, it has meant that they’ve seemed aloof and arrogant, because the silent treatment can be seen not as reticence, but as arrogance.
Having said that, the mystery surrounding the launch of any Apple product adds to the suspense and keeps fans on their toes until the last minute. People always line up to view the new iPhone. If it had all been read about and evaluated prior, then maybe people wouldn’t have turned up. The silent treatment or the direct treatment being taken into action by Elon Musk is a trend pioneered by Apple but now being skillfully curated by the Trump office, and now, organizations are starting to detach themselves from the accountability and the scrutiny of the media. The question then is, is this good for the consumer or for the employee? In the past, the media and journalists played the role of fact-checking and of keeping authoritarian leaders in their historical place. But what we’ve gone from is the traditional model of publisher to reader, of one to many, and the filter is now gone, meaning consumers will have content, say, from Elon Musk about a new car that only Elon Musk knows. Consumers will get his version of events, his version of the truth, similar to the political leaders in America right now. They’re not the only leaders like this, of course. In Asia, the governments own the media outlets. And so in a broader way, the mouthpieces of the government are the media.
There’s something to be said for this strategy of not overcommunicating. Wiio’s law suggests that the more we communicate, the less we will be understood. So, letting the product or the service do the talking is very powerful, but there comes a time for it, because how did Elan Musk, Tim Cook, or Donald Trump get to where they are today? To some degree, getting to this level of prominence has been a function of these PR people building the brand. People like Elon Musk believe that they are bigger than the brand in the same way Trump believes he’s bigger than the Republican Party. Where will this lead them? Sometimes, pride comes before a fall.
Certainly, communication is an essential part of any organization’s ability to manage stakeholder groups. This means that like Trump and Apple, Musk will then start to rely on the evangelists, which are a very powerful, free group that are effectively salespeople for the brand. They buy and believe everything the company is saying. That works as long as the product is delivering. But if it’s not, then those people may leave just as quickly as they’ve come, and they may cause even greater damage if they feel as though they have been tricked or duped. It’s one thing to read an article about a product and decide to buy it and then find it’s not the same as their product review and blame the journalist. But if you’ve been the person evangelizing about a product or service and then you find that it’s not what you believed it was, then there will be a loss of face. There will be humiliation, and that is the danger that Trump and Musk and anybody that leads this way faces. That’s what the PR team is for; they create a buffer for the company and for the brand.
How to communicate effectively without a PR team
Where does this leave you if you are running an organization? Can you communicate without a PR team? The answer is yes, you can. There are technologies available to enable you to hone your message and amplify it at scale to your personalized audience groups wherever they are around the world. It takes command of the medium and the message, and it also creates a loyal following. Do note that it’s very easy to share information, but the challenge is getting people to listen, because people will only receive the messaging and the content they’re already looking at and looking for. So if you’re not already on someone’s radar screen, it’s extremely hard to get there, but this is what public relations can do. It can take people from being unaware to being interested and to being engaged and if you’re lucky, to becoming evangelists.
News that Elon Musk has let his PR team go and is now relying on his mobile phone and Twitter as a one-man PR team for the whole company is fascinating. It’s perhaps another stage in the evolution of the company. But for most companies, having a structured and delegated communications function ensures much more consistency and less stress for the founder. Not every founder likes the limelight. Most people don’t want the conflict. Most founders would like to get on with serving their clients and customers or building their products. They want their customers to be the heroes of the show, and that’s something that one man on Twitter can’t possibly create.
This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.
Cover Photo from Car and Driver