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PR OR NOPE? What Elon Musk’s Decision to Cancel the Tesla PR Department Means for the Industry

By Jen Dobrzelecki | On October 23, 2020

(Hint: Not Much)

When the news broke recently that Tesla was dissolving its public relations department, many communications professionals were upset – and insulted – by this move. Rightfully so.

Many respected public relations leaders criticized the decision. Some say it was short-sighted. Some say it was reactive and based on emotion. Some say it is a recipe for utter disaster. Some call it “Trumpian.” All of these opinions are valid.

But what many of my industry colleagues failed to recognize is that Elon Musk isn’t discrediting the role of public relations and how it can help power an organization’s success. He gets PR. He values PR. He loves PR. In fact, disbanding Tesla’s PR department is a PR stunt in itself. Just look at the headlines that resulted from this non-announcement:

Tesla dissolves its PR department – a new first in the industry

Does Elon Musk even need a PR department?

Has Tesla really fired its PR department? And does it matter?

How Tesla could reinvent PR

Musk didn’t do away with his PR team because Tesla – or he – doesn’t need PR. He did it to send a message, albeit a dangerous one: that he and he alone can and will control the message (sound familiar?).

Let’s put things into perspective. This comes from the man who is selling all his real estate in an aim to “own no house” and who this year named his newborn X Æ A-12. This is his version of PR, aimed at reinforcing his personal brand as a disruptor who doesn’t adhere to the norm. Unfortunately, his stunts don’t always land the desired results, and have on many occasions backfired spectacularly. Remember when his lead designer smashed the window of the “bulletproof” Cybertruck?

It will only be a matter of time before Musk realizes how misguided this decision was and crawls his way back to a more formal communications approach and a team of experts who know what they are doing, although he may call it something else. His investors, customers, employees and other stakeholders will demand it. But until then, rest assured. Musk hasn’t done anything to discredit the PR industry, or to de-value the art and science that goes into a smart, strategic and effective communications program. Far too many organizations have seen the proven way PR contributes to the bottom line. Plus, there are way too many brilliant people in our field that won’t allow that to happen.

But enough about Musk. Let’s look at how an organization like Tesla benefits from a proper PR function helmed by experienced professionals:

Messages Need Control – A successful strategic communications program will design and place the right messages in the places needed to affect the desired outcome. It will also keep unwanted messages out of where they don’t belong. For anyone who thinks this looks easy, it only appears that way because there are skilled professionals planning, anticipating and guiding each step and outcome.

Relationships Matter – Ongoing, consistent communication with stakeholders is critically important in building trusting relationships. And relationships are a two-way street, where transparency and inclusion are key.

Strategic Storytelling Builds Brands – The benefits of telling a cohesive, strategic brand narrative over time are indisputable. But the only way to get there is to maintain an ongoing storytelling approach, vs. just popping up when you think you have something important to say.

PR Does Not Just Mean Press – This is a big one. Too many people still have archaic views of what PR is, and they often limit it just to earned media coverage. These are the same people who call us “publicists,” when what we do is SO. MUCH. MORE. Skilled public relations professionals think about every communication channel – from earned to paid to owned to shared – and design integrated communications and marketing strategies to ensure cohesion across all brand storytelling avenues.

At the end of the day, PR is not only alive and well – but also driving strategic outcomes for most of the world’s biggest brands. While our industry constantly evolves, it has always been a steady force delivering real impact in the real world. And that isn’t changing anytime soon.

Jen Dobrzelecki

Jen is an award-winning public relations and integrated communications expert. With more than 20 years experience developing and managing relevant, engaging and measurably successful integrated communications programs for leading global brands, she brings diverse experience to the Affect team. Jen’s expertise spans B2C and B2B marketing across a wide variety of sectors, including technology, automotive, health and wellness, consumer goods, food and beverage, retail, travel and hospitality and start-ups. She is a proven brand builder and storyteller with a keen focus on creating highly strategic and creative integrated communications and marketing programs that deliver real business impact.Prior to joining Affect, Jen founded and led the New York office for Lewis Global Communications and was the U.S. head for M&C Saatchi PR. She also previously held leadership positions at Golin and CKPR. In addition to winning dozens of awards for her client campaign work, Jen has also been recognized as one of PR News’ Top Women in PR.