Unpacking Elon Musk and Tesla’s Current PR Problem

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It would be unfair to criticize Tesla Motors’ CEO without also illustrating just how important he is to the company. Were it not for Elon Musk, Tesla would have never made it this far. He was not only integral in its foundation but also the driving factor as it picked up investors. While the company was building innovative products, he has kept shareholders looking toward the horizon and keeping the faith.

Unfortunately, 2018 hasn’t been a great year for Musk. While the brand has managed to keep its exceptionally loyal fan base, bad publicity has shaken investor confidence. No automaker is free from ugly stories but Tesla has been deemed semi-miraculous for some time — making any failures that much more glaring. The bar has been set unreasonably high and unkept promises have caused issues. Tesla has itself a PR problem and, like most things, it looks like it’ll be up to Elon to fix it. But it’s going to be a monumental task, Musk is already putting out fires everywhere and the pressure is only expected to build over the next 24 months. 

In addition to bringing up Model 3 production to 5,000 unites per week by June, the company has said it intends to bring the Model Y crossover to market by 2020. The Model 3 has already been faced with numerous production hangups and had serious trouble reaching assembly goals by the dates previously promised. Musk has even begun sleeping at the factory to do whatever it takes to bolster production and prove his commitment.

However, office camping won’t be enough to ensure the Model Y will be ready to go in two years. Musk recently said that Tesla would be announcing a brand-new factory location before the end of 2018, which will eventually become the electric crossover’s industrial womb. But factories take a long time to build. Even a modestly sized factory can take over two years to complete once the ground is broken — and that’s assuming everything goes according to plan.

Then, and only then, can the automaker start prepping the facility for Model Y production. Meanwhile, it still has to plot what it’s going to do about manufacturing the new roadster and semi-truck.

Tesla Semi, Image: Tesla

Analysts and investors are starting to realize this is an immense amount for the company to achieve, perhaps too much. During last week’s earnings call with investors, Musk seemed to be fed up with analysts hoping to make sense of Tesla’s precarious financial situation. During a question about where the company stands in terms of capital requirements, he refused to answer.

“Excuse me. Next. Next,” Musk told the call operator. “Boring, bonehead questions are not cool. Next?”

But even more mundane questions, like what percentage of Tesla 3 reservation holders have started to configure options for their cars, were met with disdain. “These questions are so dry. They’re killing me,” he said.

But these are the kind of questions analysts need to know so they can make projections about the company’s profitability. If the answer isn’t one Musk wants to give, the brush off probably isn’t a great way to appease worried investors. Share prices even took a modest hit after the earnings call. But Tesla stock has been relatively flat since recovering from the real damage dealt in the wake of a high-profile Model X crash in California from last March.

Although, that has garnered continued bad publicity as well. The National Transportation Safety Board, which has been tasked with investigating the role Autopilot played in the incident, has been at odds with automaker since it released its take on the accident to the public. The NTSB even scrapped a joint investigation because it felt Tesla wasn’t adhering to agreed-upon rules. The investigative agency said the automaker was strictly prohibited from disclosing any details of the investigation and had violated that agreement.

According to Bloomberg, Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB, called Musk on April 11th to tell him that a blog post by his company casting blame on the driver of a Model X for a fatal crash is in breech of their arrangement. He then said he would be forced to remove Tesla from participating in the investigation. “Best I remember, he hung up on us,” Sumwalt told attendees of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators’ Mid-Atlantic Regional Chapter last week.

This doesn’t mesh with Tesla’s claims that it had removed itself from the investigation prior to the NTSB’s announcement and drew further criticism the company didn’t need. Most of the news surrounding Tesla during the last few months has been uncharacteristically negative. While some of it has been valid, like quality control issues, employee safety concerns, unmet production goals, and worries about the company’s long-term finances, other bits have been rather petty — driven by the company’s constant need for attention and the press’ symbiotic fascination with the automaker.

For example, Musk took quite a bit of heat over an April Fools’ prank that joked about bankruptcy. It didn’t go over well with the media and was, admittedly, poorly timed. But it seemed rather benign compared to the myriad of more-tangible issues the automaker was being faced with. Some of the staff here even found it to be darkly comical.

Tesla’s status as an industry outlier and its CEO’s high-profile nature really makes all of this exceedingly difficult. The firm is held up largely by people’s faith in it. Investors need to continue believing in it to exist, especially considering Musk has given it this company-of-tomorrow framework but it hasn’t turned an annual profit in its 15-year history. Bad publicity could really hurt Tesla’s future and it has had too much lately. If investors begin pulling out, it won’t have the funds necessary to build these new models and finally make some money.

That doesn’t mean the company’s about to throw itself against a wall. But it does mean it has to be careful to not let things fall apart now. It may have already made amazing strides but it’s still technically an automaker in its infancy. Tesla is, no doubt, hoping the public will understand growing pains are part of the evolutionary process as it hunts for production volume. Meanwhile, Elon Musk has recanted upon his behavior during the earnings conference. We don’t expect him to take it easy on those who are critical of the company’s prospects but it’s good to see him trying to right the public-relations ship and acting a little less stressed out. Because he’s going to need to remain confident and keep a level head if he’s going to get through the next couple of years.

[Images: Tesla Motors; Elon Musk]