Elon Musk is perpetually in the news for his net worth, his claims about space travel and his pioneering work in manufacturing, among other topics. More recently however, Tesla has hit the headlines for reportedly “dissolving” its PR department. As a public global brand now worth more than Coca-Cola, Disney or Toyota that has nearly 50,000 employees, this is a controversial move and not one that’s knowingly been emulated by any other company of its size.
Tesla has reportedly not responded to a press enquiry for months, and Musk shared he was disappointed with the coverage of the company’s Battery Day event in September. With the business mogul’s Twitter following now totalling 39.2 million – that’s over half the size of the UK’s population – is there really a world where social media can overthrow media relations? What might the decision to eliminate its PR team mean for Tesla’s reputation?
Social media has quickly become the ‘go to’ for any news, updates and entertainment. I’ll never forget that novel feeling when Twitter first launched, when you suddenly had direct access to high profile individual’s thoughts and ideas. When a major news story breaks, the public want information direct from the source because it’s seen as the most reliable and accurate content. While social media could play this role for Musk as part of a communications strategy – especially with his huge following – the channel would need constant updating, management and monitoring to be successful; not something you’d expect a CEO of a multi-million-dollar company to have time for.
While social media might be a direct way to communicate with key audiences, it doesn’t replace the value that PR offers as earned media. Unlike any paid activity, media coverage operates as an endorsement because the publication and journalist have chosen to publish an article about you. This is echoed in the power of influencer marketing. And unlike oftentimes on social media where so many people share their opinions publicly, the endorsement comes from a reputable, reliable and influential place. There’s no replacement for this earned endorsement when it comes to longstanding credibility.
The old adage of promotion that ‘advertising is what you pay for, publicity is what you pray for’, applies here, with Tesla making the decision not to proactively manage their own publicity or earned media activity. Perception is reality when it comes to reputation; if prospects only read negative news or stories about a company, sure enough it’ll result in a bad opinion of that brand. Companies don’t just need to ‘pray’ for publicity – which Tesla will get without trying to the size of the brand – they also need to create and manage positive perceptions of the brand through the right publicity within relevant channels, building relationships with stakeholders and prospects throughout for long term impact.
The role of a PR team in a company the size of Tesla cannot be overlooked and is critical to how the brand is perceived, as well as how consumers understand and engage with Tesla. Additionally, while social media and public relations are without doubt intrinsically linked and need to be looked at together as part of a wider marketing strategy, switching one for the other as a communications approach is a risky choice from the multimillion pound brand.
Tesla may be fortunate in having a big enough profile to be reported on by journalists whatever happens – a profile which was only developed through public relations activity – but the lack of opportunity to work with journalists or influencers to develop and evolve that profile could have a detrimental impact on Tesla’s reputation.
How this plays out remains to be seen; I’ll be watching how this unfolds with interest. Let’s see what Elon Musk does next!