Tesla Needs An Un-PR Department
This might date me, but who remembers the old 7 Up commercials? They branded themselves as the “Uncola,” because the taste and texture of 7 Up (and later Sprite, Sierra Mist, etc.) is so different from traditional Cola drinks like Coca Cola and Dr. Pepper.
Quick sidebar: Colas are called Colas because early soft drinks derived caffeine from the Kola nut. Coca Cola gets its name from the fact that early versions of it contained cocaine from Coca leaves as well as ingredients from the Kola nut. This is why Coca Cola doesn’t sell “Coke Throwback.”
Fun(ny) facts aside, I think Tesla should do what 7 Up did and create an “Un-PR” team.
The Dark Side of the Tesla Community
I’ve seen many people say that Tesla doesn’t need a PR team because they have us, but not all of us are good ambassadors for the company.
Before I get into this one, I want to be clear on one thing: The vast majority — nearly all — of Tesla’s fans are reasonable and sane people. The overall Tesla fan community is great, and I’m glad to be a part of it. If the reasonable and sane fans (that’s probably 99.9% of our dear readers) were the public face of the company, there wouldn’t be a problem at all. You all are awesome, and Tesla couldn’t ask for better fans!
The problem is that there’s a tiny minority of the community that isn’t reasonable or sane. Let’s call them the Tesla Stans, and I mean “Stan” in the original dark way that it was meant when Eminem first coined the term in his song “Stan.”
There are people who are obsessed with Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX, and everything else Elon Musk is involved in. And by obsessed, I don’t mean that mildly. There are people who spent their life savings on Tesla stock and don’t have more than $100 in the bank. They have Elon Musk’s Twitter set to give a loud notification on their phones, day or night, and will snatch their phone to reply as fast as possible to any Elon tweet, even if their significant other is bothered by the sudden light in the room at 3:00 AM.
Some of these stalker fans are professional fans. They don’t have a job, or if they do, they’re fixing to lose it because they are online all day talking about Tesla and Elon. They have loads of fans on Twitter, YouTube, and sometimes even OnlyFans, so they can make a living hyperventilating about the company and its stock all day. They’re more likely to be able to tell you what Tesla’s Q1 earnings were, in great detail and from memory, than they are to remember the ages of their kids or whether they fed the cat this week.
Once again, I’m not saying every Tesla fan or influencer is like this. They’re a small minority and don’t really speak for the community as a whole in reality, but they have an outsized presence.
Who Gets The Attention?
There’s an old saying that applies here: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
If you’re a writer at a major news outlet, there’s no demand for articles like “Everything is great at Tesla right now” or “Tesla fans are really cool people.”
Another saying in the journalism world: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
The normal and cool Tesla fans (and that’s almost all Tesla fans) aren’t that noisy or interesting (relatively speaking). For one, we have jobs. Even writing at CleanTechnica, I have to focus on other interesting things that are going on in the cleantech world at least half the time. We just don’t have that much time to make noise, even here. Also, most of us are nice people who don’t like being up to our eyeballs in controversy and ugliness all the time, so we don’t capture the attention of journalists. Finally, we have lives to live that are at least partially fulfilling, but that aren’t that interesting to journalists and the public at large, and that takes up basically the rest of our time.
The full-time professional Tesla Stans? They love the attention, and they’re always generating controversy with their childish and obsessive behavior. The petty rivalries, the angry and bitter tone, and the conspiracy theories are all something a normal person wouldn’t want in their lives, but the Stans love it and look for more. They’re toxic people and they are always looking for more toxic sludge to wallow in.
If you’re a journalist looking for an interesting story, it’s going to be about something that’s on your radar. The normal fans aren’t going to get on the radar at all unless something truly awful or amazing happens to them. Meanwhile, the Stans are so obsessed with Tesla that they harass and even stalk journalists who have even the smallest negative thing to share about the company, so they’re always on the radar.
The squeaky wheel Stans suck all of the journalistic oxygen out of the room. They get almost all of the attention, and it’s negative. This leaves mainstream journalists and, by extension, the public at large, with the impression that Tesla is a “cult” and that the Stans are Elon Musk’s flying monkeys.
For the Stans, it most definitely is a cult, but it’s a cult with very few members.
Finally, if someone really is out to smear Tesla, these bad fans give them exactly what they need to do it.
Nature Abhors A Vacuum
To see how this works, let’s look at the recent accident that happened near Houston.
In the wake of the accident, there was initially a vacuum of information regarding the wreck. It was quickly filled by what turned out to be bad information from a local elected official, and then the mainstream journalism world ran with that “fact.”
At CleanTechnica, we took a wait-and-see approach initially, and held the story for a couple days to see what information came out. It turned out to be the right move because we soon found out that Autopilot was not engaged. We didn’t find out for another week, though, that there was evidence of a driver behind the wheel (some of us suspected this, but that’s not enough on its own to write about).
During that week, the rest of the world ran with bad information to fill the vacuum. In response, the Stans also made fools of themselves with conspiracy theories, stalking and harassment, and other flying monkey behavior, which made it look like Tesla fans were deeply afraid. The rest of us weren’t afraid, as you likely know, but that didn’t stop the Stans from leaving people with that impression.
An “Un-PR” Department Could Solve Most Of This
As we know, traditional PR didn’t work out well for Tesla. The mainstream press didn’t develop a good relationship with Tesla, and some journalists have been very committed to pushing as negative a line on the company as they could, regardless of facts. Communicating with those people does nothing but waste Tesla’s money at best or give them something to misconstrue at worst.
It’s possible to be innovative here and create a very different kind of PR department that better served Tesla’s needs.
Here’s what I would do:
I’d create a small team that reports directly to Elon Musk, and focuses more on the company’s overall reputation, instead of focusing on responding to individual press concerns. On a normal day, the idea would be to work with different parts of the company to get good but interesting news out the door and into journalists’ hands.
Journalists who have a good history of being fair (even if they’ve been negative — as long as they were honest) should be invited to events and other journalistic opportunities to help spread the good. This group of honest journalists might even be given opportunity to submit questions in some fashion, but through a web portal that keeps the flow of questions manageable and directs them to the answer if the question has been answered before.
However, there should always be at least one person on watch looking out for things that the team may need to respond to. When this happens, information should be gathered from around the company as needed and a statement put out so the company fills the information vacuum with something more useful.
Another thing that will be necessary from time to time is “Stan management.” The company should be seen publicly encouraging decent behavior in the fanbase from time to time. Instead of looking like Elon’s flying monkeys, the Stans would then just be lone cranks whose behavior doesn’t have any support from the company. The people with that kind of personality can’t stand to lose attention, so they’ll likely be motivated to change their ways and quit acting like flying monkeys.
More importantly, by not being a traditional, rigidly-defined PR department, Tesla can adapt and adjust it over time to best fit the company’s needs. That’s what’s important.
Featured image: “The monkeys caught Dorothy in their arms and flew away with her” — illustration by W. W. Denslow in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). (Public Domain)