Tesla Under Fire: PR Pros Offer Tips for Agency-Averse Company

What Should Musk and Gang Do About Battery Fires?

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Still from YouTube video of Tesla fire from earlier this year.
Still from YouTube video of Tesla fire from earlier this year.

With Tesla Motors in the news for a third fire in one of its Model S vehicles, the electric-car brand is running the risk of a narrative problem. At least according to some PR pros.

But while other companies would be lining up a platoon of crisis-management folks, the company led by Elon Musk is sticking to its in-house PR team and a spokeswoman has said it doesn't plan on hiring an ad agency. The company doesn't even have a chief marketing officer.

Regarding the most recent fire, in Smyrna, Tenn., the spokeswoman said it was caused by an accident, not from the vehicle's battery pack spontaneously catching fire.

"We have been in contact with the driver, who was not injured and believes the car saved his life," the company said in a statement, adding that it's conducting an extensive investigation.

But from a publicity perspective, the issue isn't whether or not the fire was spontaneous or caused by an accident. Like it or not, Tesla is an exotic, new product and the subject of much media curiosity. After all, according to the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments responded to an average of 152,000 vehicle car fires across the U.S. from 2006 to 2010, according to the National Fire Protection Association. And those didn't exactly make national news.

Nobody was injured in any of the Tesla fires. Still, the negative publicity helped slow the meteoric rise of company's stock price on Wall Street. And Hollywood movie star George Clooney just dissed Tesla by telling Esquire he got rid of his vehicle because it too often left him stuck by the side of the road.

So what should the company do? We asked a few PR pros.

Eric Dezenhall
Eric Dezenhall

Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, and author of "Damage Control"

Elon Musk is pound for pound a heckuva lot smarter than most of the people in the crisis-management business. It doesn't mean he knows everything and is invincible. . . . I think sometimes external crisis managers, under the right circumstances, can provide quite a lot. But there are plenty of occasions where I reject the idea that external crisis managers are the magicians that the industry merchandises itself as.

I think [Tesla has] done a heckuva lot more right than wrong. One way to look at their troubles is they fall under the category of things that happen when you're outrageously successful -- and perhaps overhyped beyond what you're capable of delivering. . . . The other thing that's interesting is the number of external voices that have weighed in to point out the statistical insignificance of some of these fires. There are a couple hundred thousand fires of gasoline-powered car a year. Few to none get any media coverage whatsoever. Now, Tesla has some incidents and people think it's the biggest thing they've ever heard? Putting that in context is helpful.

Mike Paul
Mike Paul

Mike "The Reputation Doctor" Paul, president, MGP & Associates PR

I certainly think they need a crisis PR advisor to address this issue. One of the conclusions, or solutions, could be and should be both advertising and PR. But it starts with research. If they don't know what's happening with those explosions, they must know as soon as possible. That's not only a crisis objective. That's a business objective. . . .

Tesla needs to learn some lessons from Detroit and the Big Three car companies. If they're deciding whether this is a big deal, it is a big deal. Just look at the dozens of stories about recalls and problems in cars. They have many historical examples to learn from. They've had an excellent brand positioning, to date, because they've positioned themselves as a car of the future. . . . Once they do their research on all the brands that have made mistakes in the past. And they understand the position they've had prior to this crisis event, and it is a crisis event, they'll realize it's now time for change. They've gotten away without having global advertising or global PR. Time to get both. It's also time to understand that only relying on reactive brand positioning is not a sound strategy. A sound, comprehensive strategy always includes both proactive, and reactive, strategies. One of the things they need to say is: 'The safety of our customers is the most important aspect of our cars. We take this extremely seriously. And proactively, we're going to check into it ourselves. We're going to communicate clearly, and transparently, to the world about what we find. If there is a problem, we want to know first. And we're going to have those results for you definitely by the end of the year. Stay tuned, we'll have more soon.

Ernest Lupinacci
Ernest Lupinacci

Ernest Lupinacci, founder, Ernest Industries branding consultancy

Tesla has to try to control the narrative or the narrative will control them. Is Tesla going to become the next Ford? Or the next DeLorean? . . . They've stumbled.

As a civilization of storytellers and story listeners, only two things can happen. They stumble -- and allow their hubris to ruin them. Or they stumble -- and they allow their wisdom to lead them to victory.

Whether or not they literally hire [a PR firm] to solve this problem, they have to ask themselves: Are you aware you have a problem? Is the problem an engineering problem or a narrative problem? And as you're solving the engineering problem are you also solving the narrative problem?

Here's the narrative you don't want to happen: Jockey shorts cause sterility; Bubble Yum's filled with spider eggs; and Teslas explode in accidents. . . . It's mobocracy. Right now, Tesla has a great story. They're the car that runs on electricity. They don't want the urban legend to be that Tesla is a rolling microwave.

The point is, before someone writes 'Unsafe At Any Speed' about Tesla, Tesla needs to get ahead of the narrative before the narrative gets ahead of them. Look at Audi and sudden, unintended acceleration. It was an urban legend. But it took Audi 20 years to get past that.

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