Out of This World: How Tesla Uses Public Relations

Elon Musk, owner of electric car brand Tesla and rocket manufacturing company SpaceX, knows how to drum up a heap of publicity. As one of Silicon Valley’s most famous tech entrepreneurs, his SpaceX and Tesla public relations stunts are out of this world. Quite literally.

It goes without saying that Elon Musk is one of life’s disruptors. And consequently, over the years he’s built a large and loyal fanbase. This is the guy that co-founded PayPal then sold it (and made $180m in the process). He then launched a new solar car manufacturing firm that nearly bankrupted him but ended up making him a billionaire. And in 2020, the fifth richest person in the world.

Musk is a phenomenal entrepreneur. But it’s his ability to use public relations that really sets him apart. His SpaceX and Tesla PR stunts have built a cult-like following, almost more than the actual products themselves, which, let’s be honest, few of us can afford.

In fact, Musk is known to eschew traditional marketing methods pretty much altogether and mostly relies on public relations to build his multibillion dollar businesses.

Tesla’s Public Relations Strategy

Elon Musk in dark jacket

Look at Tesla. Compared to other car companies, Tesla has a tiny ad budget. According to a report from Global Equities Research, Tesla only spends $6 per vehicle on advertising. By comparison, Toyota, spends $248 per vehicle. While luxury car manufacturers like Jaguar, spend a few thousand dollars per car on advertising.

Instead, Tesla has a public relations strategy that focuses on sharing information through Musk’s personal Twitter account, which currently stands at over 38 million followers. And by information, we mean headline-grabbing soundbites that are retweeted and shared across all platforms. Which in turn are picked up and covered in the traditional press.

Who can forget Musk’s dig at car manufacturing behemoth Ford when speaking about the Tesla factory? “I think there’s a good vibe  – I think the energy is good; go to Ford, it looks like a morgue.”

Or expressing frustration over Ford (again) for trademarking a vehicle name. “Like why did you go steal Tesla’s E? Like you’re some sort of fascist army marching across the alphabet, some sort of Sesame Street robber?”

And then there are the outrageous tweets about aliens, Egyptian pyramids, and colonising Mars. Are these the rants of a narcissist or fantasist? Or someone who knows how to work the system to get a whole load of publicity without spending a fortune?

Musk knows that every time he speaks or tweets it’s news. Tesla is well-known because Musk is well-known. Apple did the same. Customers bought into the cult of Apple because they bought into the cult of Steve Jobs.

Consequently, Musk’s thoughts, actions and opinions are widely reported across the media globally, irrespective of what he’s talking about. In fact, the more ‘out there’ his opinions the more likely they are to be reported and the more publicity Musk secures for Tesla and SpaceX.

Tesla’s Public Relations Successes

Tesla Goes Sky High

Tesla dashboard during rocket launch

On February 6th 2018, the American billionaire made history when he successfully launched his beloved Tesla Roadster into space, on board the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy.

The goal was straightforward: to launch the rocket successfully. The addition of the Tesla was just “for fun” according to Musk. In fact, Musk wasn’t expecting the rocket to make it off the ground at all, but it did, and in doing so, he opened up new possibilities in space travel, while cleverly promoting his Tesla brand.

Strapped inside the car was a spacesuit-wearing mannequin dubbed ‘Starman’, who was reminiscent of Top Gear’s The Stig. And there were some other nice references to popular culture too. David Bowie’s Space Oddity blared through the speakers during launch, and a message on the Tesla’s dashboard that read ‘don’t panic,’ in homage to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There was also a disk carrying a digital copy of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction series Foundation in the glovebox, along with a plaque engraved with 6,000 SpaceX employees’ names.

Space age spectacle

The Falcon Heavy and its cherry red cargo, launched from Kennedy Space Centre, was watched by hundreds of thousands of people along Florida’s space coast, plus millions more online, as the launch was streamed live on YouTube. At its peak, the stream attracted 2.3 million viewers. The videos and re-uploads have since attracted tens of millions more views, and virtually every publication on the planet has written about the stunt.

Out of this world PR

Musk made the most of the PR opportunity. He created a buzz for the event on Twitter in the lead-up to launch day and kept his millions of followers updated on the flight profile of the rocket and the various delays to the launch, caused by high-altitude winds. He even engaged in some friendly banter with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, whose own space company Blue Origin competes with SpaceX.

On launch day, soon after the 27-engine rocket roared into space, Musk tweeted a livestream link with the comment “apparently, there is a car in orbit around Earth”, followed by, “we’re doing OK for a bunch of monkeys. Humanity rocks”.

For Musk, the stunt cross-promoted his brands perfectly: SpaceX got a heap of attention to promote its spacefaring work, and Tesla got to claim that it has the fastest car in the galaxy. It also diverted attention away from the bad PR associated with Tesla’s Model 3 production delays. It was a PR win all-round.

Tesla’s Autonomous Taxi Service

Tesla dashboard showing computer screen

During an event for investors in 2019 at Tesla HQ, Musk declared that company would have an autonomous taxi service by the end of 2020. He also asserted that in the future people won’t even be allowed to drive their own cars because they’ll be unsafe compared with autonomous vehicles.

A bold claim. Which was immediately called out by some auto executives as overly optimistic and others as a publicity stunt. Although Musk asserted as recently as July 2020 that there will be self-driving cars this year.

A publicity stunt? Maybe. But that’s just the point. This is Tesla and Musk’s modus operandi. Make an announcement which garners a whole lot of headlines and if the target is missed then so be it. Musk himself admitted at the time that the “only criticism – and it’s a fair one – sometimes I’m not on time. But – I get it done. And the Tesla team gets it done.”

Up in smoke

Tesla CEO smokes weed during interview

This is a tricky one. When your rule-breaking CEO smokes weed during an interview, is it a PR success story or business suicide?

Back in 2018, Musk was  interviewed for the Joe Rogan Podcast, which aired on YouTube. During the two hour interview Rogan lit a joint and passed it to Musk who took a puff and carried on talking.

Stockholders were not impressed. Tesla’s stock plummeted and two executives quit. And yet. Elon Musk still scored a load of coverage on CNN, the BBC and Bloomberg to name a few and became a trending topic on Twitter.

He later said in an interview with Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes: “I am somewhat impulsive. I don’t really want to try to adhere to some CEO template. I do not smoke pot. As anyone who watched that podcast can tell, I have no idea how to smoke pot, or anything.”

For any other CEO this would have been a PR disaster. But Musk seemed to brush it off as all part of his maverick charm.

Tesla PR Stunts That Go Wrong – Yet Still Go Right

Tesla launch Cybertruck

In 2019, Musk launched Tesla’s batmobile-esque Cybertruck which according to the website is ‘built with an exterior shell made for ultimate durability and passenger protection…every component is designed for superior strength and endurance, from Ultra-Hard 30X Cold-Rolled stainless-steel structural skin to Tesla armor glass.’

As part of a PR stunt at the launch event and to demonstrate the car’s toughness, lead designer Franz von Holzhausen attempted to dent the car’s door by thwacking it with a mallet, to no avail. So far, so good. But when he threw a metallic ball at the driver-side front window, it shattered, much to the shock of the audience.

In a tweet, Musk claimed, “We threw the same steel ball at same window several times right before the event and didn’t even scratch the glass.”

A Tesla PR stunt gone horribly wrong? Well, no. The screw-up went viral and spawned a ton of memes. And even Lego got in on the act on Twitter with ‘The evolution of the truck is here. Guaranteed shatterproof.’

The upshot? Musk claimed on Twitter that the company received 146,000 pre-orders with “with no advertising and no paid endorsement.” The pre-orders quickly reached over 250,000. Not bad for a vehicle which won’t be in production until 2021.

Of course, there are those conspiracy theorists that claim that the Tesla-PR-stunt-gone-wrong was in fact part of the PR stunt. A risky strategy considering the share price plummeted again straight after. But with a quarter of million orders on the books, a risk worth taking perhaps? Only Musk knows the truth. It was an unusual way to secure publicity in the mainstream media. But arguably it was a successful one.

And the Ones That Really Go Wrong

Elon Musk child size submarine

Back in June 2018, the world was gripped as attempts were made to rescue a Thai football team trapped underground in the Tham Luang caves.

As experts worldwide scrambled for a solution, Musk showcased his plan in a series of tweets. The answer? A child sized submarine, which he proceeded to deliver himself to Thailand. While some saw this as a genuine attempt to help out in a terrible situation, others did not.

British diver Vern Unsworth, who was an integral part of the rescue team, dismissed the idea completely and declared it “had absolutely no chance of working.” And in an interview with CNN, he said Musk’s bizarre idea was “just a PR stunt” and that “he can stick his submarine where it hurts”. According to Unsworth, Musk had no “conception of what the cave passage was like.”

Musk then let his ego get the better of him, referring to Unsworth quite bizarrely as the “pedo guy”on Twitter. Musk later apologised and removed the tweet. Although he later sent a rambling email to a Buzzfeed reporter claiming Unsworth was a “child rapist.” All in all, not a good look for the billionaire CEO and an unseemly public relations crisis for Tesla that would have seen any other employee sacked for bringing the company into disrepute.

But this is Elon Musk and seemingly nothing sticks. Unsworth later sued Musk for damages in December 2019 but lost the case. Musk’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, told the jurors that Musk’s tweets were not to be taken seriously, and were just “insults understood as insults” in an “argument between two men”.

How Musk and Tesla use Public Relations

Musk gets global coverage for nearly everything he does, because he dares to be different. He’s a showman and a maverick. He’s constantly challenging the norm and seems to have little interest in money. Which is easy when you’re worth billions. Although Tesla enjoy the publicity generated by their CEO’s notoriety, it almost certainly causes the company’s shareholders sleepless nights.

And what’s happened to Tesla’s share price during the pandemic? It’s quadrupled since the beginning of the year and the company has overtaken Toyota as the world’s most valuable carmaker. So don’t expect Musk’s approach to change anytime soon.

Musk is fearless and entrepreneurial. And there’s much to be admired about that. He doesn’t always get it right of course and when he doesn’t, he’s roundly criticised.

But when he does, he’s likely to make history. The rocketman Tesla PR stunt is one of the top PR stunts of the century and likely to remain that way for years to come.

Even without the money and influence of Elon Musk, you can still create out-of-this-world PR stunts; you just need to think outside the box.

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