Tesla Stops Pretending It Needs to Talk to Journalists

I say good for them.
October 6, 2020, 3:38pm
Elon Musk frowning
Maja Hitij / Getty Images

Tesla as a car company has two genuine innovations: taking mass-production of electric cars seriously in a decade when no other automaker did and the Supercharger network. Now, I can add a third innovation to the list: not having a public relations department.

On Tuesday, the electric transportation website Electrek confirmed what reporters who report on Tesla have known for months: the car company no longer has a communications department, the one that responds to questions from reporters. The generic press@tesla.com inbox has gone unanswered for almost a year now, surely racking up tens of thousands of unread emails from journalists on deadline requesting comment about anything from the latest Elon Musk scandal to a brand new car's roof flying off.

As Electrek points out, this is yet another way in which Tesla is breaking from its auto company competitors, which typically employ large PR teams that take messaging and strategy very seriously. Traditional auto companies spend billions upon billions of dollars every year on advertising to differentiate all their virtually identical vehicles from one another. Meanwhile, Tesla has never invested in marketing, instead relying on Elon Musk's tens of millions of Twitter followers and all the media attention he generates. 

As far as Tesla's decision to not have a PR department anymore, I say good for them. The way the company approached talking to reporters was always a waste of everyone's time. Almost every inquiry was responded to with a request to talk "off the record" or "on background" which, if granted, would result in a lot of professional and personal denigrations but little information relevant to the story. Rarely would these protracted conversations result in a statement for publication, and when they did, the statement was often directly contradicted by publicly available evidence. 

These were unhealthy conversations and a waste of everyone's time. Unfortunately, they're not unique to Tesla, but a standard across the "tech" industry, companies that typically consider themselves above independent scrutiny.

Just last week, Amazon responded to a thorough investigation by the non-profit news organization Reveal about injuries at the company's warehouses by denigrating the news agency itself in an "on background" section of an email blasted out to reporters. The Markup's Editor-in-Chief Julia Angwin had a good summary of how screwed up this was and why it's emblematic of a larger problem in the tech industry. But Amazon was just piggybacking on the same approach Tesla's PR team took when Reveal did a similar investigation into Tesla's factories

To be clear, this is not about whether any of these individual communications professionals are good or bad at their jobs. This is about a gradual but unfortunate trend in how an entire industry views what doing a "good" job means. Like any professional journalist, I've spoken to a lot of comms people. I've worked in sports, reported on local transit agencies which had me working with a lot of government comms people, and now I work for Motherboard. I've worked with some very good comms people and some very bad ones, and those differentiations are not correlated with whether the story I was doing made their organization look bad or not. It has to do with whether that company's communications department views its job as working with journalists to put the company in the best possible light in whatever stories may be written or fostering a fundamentally adversarial relationship with the news industry in order to undermine its legitimacy and cast doubt on its credibility. 

In a perfect world, Tesla and the other tech companies like it would approach the PR role differently. For example, they could try actually providing some information to journalists from time to time when we ask for it. They would cease blatantly disrespectful behavior like refusing to comment on a story before publication only to publish multi-thousand word blog posts about the story afterwards, making our stories appear artificially one-sided and biased (typically the first thing we are accused of when publishing a story they don't like). But in the absence of all that, dissolving the PR department is a fine second choice. It doesn't change anything, but at least it drops the pretense and saves us all a little bit of time.  

I have emailed Tesla's press address asking them to reply if they still exist. We'll let you know if we hear back.