When PR stunts go wrong

Róisín Cullen

Credit: Tesla

In 2019, Elon Musk has become well acquainted with scandal and controversy.  

An example that has contributed to this being his donation of a submarine composed of rocket parts quickly manufactured to save children trapped in a cave in Thailand- an act of charity that was immediately exposed as a PR stunt. Experts have argued that the gift was simply not built for purpose. Musk never had the chance to defend his intentions – the “tiny-kid sized” submarine arrived long after the soccer team had been rescued.

Musk recently proudly revealed his “bullet-proof” cyber truck. He asked for a metal ball to be thrown at the windows before watching the glass shatter before his eyes. “Oh well, maybe that was a little too hard”, he exclaimed knowing that the reveal would be played and replayed by millions across the world. BBC reported a fall in Tesla stocks after the reveal. Yet, Musk declared that the reveal gained a positive response, with 146, 000 pre-orders without advertising or paid endorsement. Musk knows the key to surviving in a competitive market – and it does not include wholesome Christmas adverts or positive reviews.

Elon Musk has become a household name, because he knows how to play an online audience. Those, who may have heard of his boring company or his rockets will have heard of his social media outbursts. “Sandwich time travel is the only time travel” is not a statement one would have heard from a billionaire of the pre-social media era.

Families no longer sit around the television at peak times. We do not have the patience for adverts in a fast moving world, especially when they pop up in the middle of a captivating cat video. Today’s scandals are quickly replaced by exploding Samsung smartphones or a Kardashian family member vowing to solve political unrest with a can of Pepsi. Is there really such a thing as bad PR? Will controversy always be rewarded? Perhaps, the key to remaining influential in a saturated economy is to simply keep your brand trending twitter, to create mass hysteria and public outcry. It can be easy to label Musk as an idiot, the man who wants to move to Mars. Yet, we are looking at man with an IQ of 155, a genius that knows how to play the media.

PR disasters can be quickly turned into free advertisement; this is a skill that some of the more traditional companies have not learned. Volkswagen was always referred to as “Das Auto”, (The Car). The car was a household name long before Mark Zuckerberg was. The “people’s car” has a more than questionable history. Would the brand have survived if its Nazi links had been revealed via a 2019 Tweet? Probably not.

The chief executive of Volkswagen, Herbert Diess apologised in March for his “unfortunate choice of word” when he used the phrase “Ebit march frei” at a company event, a phrase immediately evokes images of another well-known German phrase, a phrase engraved into a pair of gates. “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free).

This is a 2019 PR disaster that holds the power to signal the end. A rock that shatters a supposedly bulletproof window is funny, a social media whirlwind that will die down within 24 hours. Musk laughs at his own misfortune and vows to go back to the drawing board. However, deceit and betrayal is often harder to brush under the carpet and out of public memory.

Volkswagen was forced to humbly changed its slogan from “Das Auto” (The Car) to simply “Volkswagen” in 2015 when it admitted to using cheat software in its cars in an effort to give false readings on the exhaust that the cars were producing. No company is safe from the power of public outcry via social media. A secret does not remain a secret for long and a more open approach is often preferred even if it is often seen as idiotic.

Musk knows how to play the media, to use PR mistakes to his own advantage. Traditional companies can no longer rely on their longevity, in an era when someone’s world can change with the click of the box that reads “send tweet”.

Róisín Cullen

Image Credit: Tesla