Why jumping the PR-ship is a recipe for disaster in a crisis

By Georgia Ward

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen brands across every industry make drastic changes to their marketing and PR approaches, whether they have cut back on spend, restructured their marketing teams, refocused their communication strategies and plans or all of the above. However, the most dangerous move for a company to make is remove marketing and PR completely from the fold, which has been the step dynamic automaker Tesla has taken.  

On Monday PR Week reported that Tesla had allegedly dissolved its company-wide PR department. This makes the company the first carmaker to entirely shut itself off from direct communication with the media. Now, official communications from the brand will be shared through Tesla’s corporate and Musk’s personal social media accounts.  

Although there may be many reasons for this decision, including the fact the company’s owner Elon Musk has been a prolific critic of the media over his career, this opens the company up to reputational issues and closes the brand off from organic, tactical communications, which in turn will impact their brand positioning. 

Here are two key reasons why this strategy could cause more harm than good: 

Lesley, account director: By not responding to any press enquiries they are sending a strong message that they do not care about communicating to their loyal customers and their wider audiences. Often the press will only be asking questions that their stakeholders are keen to know the responses to. Just like the hospitality sector, many purchasing decisions can be influenced by what the leading automotive press have to say on a car review or how the respective national travel editors rate a hotel. By not being open and transparent it makes you wonder what they have to hide? And, if an issue or crisis does arise, will they have the bandwidth and expertise to manage it? A key part of any PR role is to continually monitor and manage potential issues before they escalate into a crisis that could affect their bottom lineAs no organisation is immune to experiencing issues, I fear this is a very short-sighted approach by Tesla. 

Emma, account manager: It’s well known that Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk regularly displays a Trump-style mistrust of mainstream media through his personal social media accounts, but to close his company off from the fourth estate by scrapping his PR department will have disastrous consequences for the brand’s image. A PR or communications department serves as a gatekeeper between the company and journalists and, while a PR professional may not be able to tell a journalist what to write, through engagement with them, they can ensure they have control over what is being said about that company. If the media has nowhere to direct questions to and receive correct answers they can simply write ‘company declined to comment’ which, although is no defence in a libel case, will make it harder to prove that the media is wrong. A PR department that understands the company and what it stands for will ensure that some level of control is retained through reports and give a greater chance of pushing a positive narrative. Why would any company wish to relinquish that? 

Discover how Custard’s experience in reputational management and communications can increase your exposure and deliver ROI by contacting our team today.