There’s a good chance this is one controversy you haven’t heard about involving Elon Musk. It centers on reports that Musk’s automotive company Tesla has cut its public relations function.
As the New York Post reported, the company has decided it no longer wants to deal with the news media, so it has eliminated its global PR team. This, we are told, means that the media now “has no formal point of contact at the world’s most valuable automaker.”
According to that report and others, all of those who had worked in Tesla’s PR department have either moved elsewhere within the company or left it.
What has made this situation worse is that while Musk enjoys rock star status across a lot of demographics, but especially among Millennials and Gen Z, he’s become widely unpopular in traditional media circles for his criticism of the news media.
In May of 2018, he tweeted: “The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them,”
As a result, Musk openly drew battle lines between the media and himself, and presumably the companies he runs.
This has put some journalists in an awkward position. The nature of Musk’s work is extremely appealing to the media. Electric cars, rejuvenated interest in space travel, private start-ups saving international space programs. That’s some pretty cool stuff.
Not to mention that Musk is also known to go counter-culture on occasion, like the time he smoked weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast. In a media climate consumed with celebrity culture, Elon Musk holds all of the ingredients of a media darling. So, the fact that he rejects the news media’s narrative is a slight many can’t accept.
But let’s go back to that tweet of Musk’s. He wasn’t the first to point out the media has lost some of its mojo. Every year, the mega PR firm Edelman, releases its “Trust Barometer,” and through it we have been able to track the slide in trust between the public and the news media. While the Trust Barometer may say it more gently, it pretty much says the same thing that Musk said in his tweet. The news media is in a crisis of trust.
Communication is Still Happening
So, with regard to the current status of Tesla’s PR function.
The truth is, Tesla does continue to make public disclosures through its Investor Relations department but not a public relations function. To be sure, the disclosures are about as brief and terse as is legally possible, but there is still a function and a process for communication.
Tesla is hardly alone in this. Many companies operate with little to no formal public relations department. I’ve been the de facto PR department for more than a few clients. This is nothing new or unusual.
The key difference here is that Musk doesn’t seem to be masking his dislike of the media.
For their part, some in the PR profession have their noses out of joint over Tesla’s shift away from a formal PR department. The common refrain is that this sets a dangerous precedent, a blow to transparency, an attack on the free flow of information, and the devaluation of the public relations profession as a whole. These concerns hint at the notion that Tesla may be doing something unethical.
With all due respect to my fellow PR colleagues, relax.
Tesla is not a governmental agency subject to sunshine laws. It’s a private entity and can run itself any way it sees fit. There are no laws that say businesses must have public relations departments. I would agree that Tesla is making a bad business decision, but that’s all it is.
At the end of the day, Elon Musk can run his companies any way he likes, and if he makes a mistake, he will face the consequences, be it from a regulator, the marketplace or, of course, the media.
In my experience, enterprising reporters know how to get information about a company without going through a public relations function. In fact, some of my biggest challenges over the years have been in dealing with reporters who refuse to let a company tell its side of the story. Musk seems willing to take that risk.
Reporters will call analysts, competitors, vendor companies, investors, activist groups and others. They will pour through public reports and disclosures. They will attend trade shows and events and usually aren’t bashful about approaching company representatives or others on the spot. They will follow social media accounts.
While many in the PR field, myself included, can see the danger in letting the media drive the process and the narrative, that doesn’t mean a company like Tesla that is willing to take that risk is hurting anyone but itself.
So, Tesla may have gotten rid of its PR function. This isn’t the sign of a trend or the end of times for the PR business. It’s not the death of transparency. It’s Elon being Elon. It’s another reminder that the news media remains in a crisis of trust. The world will go on.