Communications, at its core, is actually a very simple exercise if we keep our audience in mind. During a crisis, a communicator’s job is to craft and deliver messages that impart—above all—stability to the audience. To maximum success, communicators establish a feedback loop between the audiences and themselves to best develop ways to improve future messaging.
After a recent failure in Tesla’s automated braking system was reported in an accident with a semi-truck (where the Tesla driver was killed) the company has struggled to identify with its audience and communicate effectively. The result is growing skepticism, even though potentially undeserved, in its newly developed Autopilot system. After a first wave of negative media coverage, Tesla’s visionary CEO Elon Musk lashed out on Twitter challenging the journalists’ understanding of the Autopilot system.
By taking on the media, Musk’s biggest offense was being defensive. When we try vigorously defending our vision in a crisis we believe we are instilling our message with passion. In actuality, the audience deciphers our message as excessively defensive creating an aura of doubt and mistrust. Once a message is tainted with skepticism, it can be tough to dig out, no matter how factual the argument.
As the face of modern innovation, Musk knows he will always be subject to naysayers. Musk thrives as a generational disrupter to the status quo, not as an instigator feuding with a journalist over Twitter. It is these very posts that are keeping the story alive and have critics waiting for the next shoe to drop so that they have the trend story of “continuing troubles at Tesla.”
It may not be reality, but public perception rarely is.
We are human and it is an easy trap to get knocked off message, especially when we are passionate about a specific issue and disagree with those trying to persuade us.
Arguing with a journalist publicly by accusing him of misleading the public and the encouraging him to do the “bloody math” is far away from where the discussion should be—and a loss for drivers, innovators, and shareholders.
Musk should analyze his media feedback and readjust by focusing on safety—a winner every time. Launching a new fact-based line of messaging on safety will allow Tesla to continue its charge at the forefront of automotive pioneering.
LEVICK Fellow Silas Hill contributed to this post.