Tesla Motors’ founder and CEO Elon Musk has good reason to be peeved. Just months after a federal safety agency named his company’s Model S the safest car ever made, a spate of highly-publicized battery fires – if three equals a spate – has triggered an investigation by the same agency, sunk Tesla’s stock by more than one-third and prompted analysts to pull back from bullish sales forecasts.
Musk, a serial entrepreneur who previously started PayPal and the aerospace company Space X, took to Twitter, Tesla’s blog and the media to defend his company, whose all-electric vehicles are visionary in more ways than one. Calling the weeks since the fires “torture,” he sounded all the right notes – the fires occurred after accidents that no vehicle could withstand, no one was injured (in fact, no one has ever been injured in a Model S crash), and the vehicle’s design prevented far worse outcomes. Tesla even amended its warranty to cover fire loss in a crash, while noting that it didn’t really need to.
Certainly all those points are worth making. But Musk’s prideful, slightly prickly defense of his company and its flagship product omits a key element of the classic crisis PR response – a measure of self-effacing concern that might preserve its goodwill.
THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for a zealously passionate Elon Musk, for wearing his car on his sleeve, but not his heart.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Being smart counts more than being right. In a crisis, don’t let your desire for vindication cloud your judgment. You can be 100 percent in the right and still lose the PR battle if you fail to show balance and an appropriate measure of humility. Stories like the Tesla battery fires are driven by emotion and can’t be countered with facts alone. Tesla’s reputation, and likely its stock price, would be faring better now if its founder had walked a less defensive, more conciliatory line in addressing the matter.