While many corporate executives tend to err on the side of not stirring up trouble or controversy, Tesla CEO Elon Musk is nothing if not outspoken. One could even argue that Musk’s unabashed willingness to shoot from the hip, criticize the status-quo and more or less say whatever pops into his head is precisely why he has garnered such a devoted following. Say what you will about Musk, but he has never been someone you’d associate with the word boring.
But in the wake of all the controversy surrounding a fatal Model S crash involving Tesla’s Autopilot software, some are now wondering if Musk’s brash demeanor — which often manifests itself online — is a detriment.
Interestingly, The Guardian recently published an article positing that “experts in crisis management have said the handling of events by both Musk and Tesla has been a ‘case study’ of how not to do it.”
Specifically, the report raises the idea that Musk has been more preoccupied with defending Tesla’s safety record and the technology behind its Autopilot software than he should be given that a man lost his life in an auto accident.
“What a CEO should do when there’s a death associated with one of his company’s products is respond, first and foremost, with compassion, and then with words that express competence and confidence,” Bernstein Crisis Management President Jonathan Bernstein said in an interview. “Musk seems to prefer angry defensiveness. Quoting statistics that explain why the death isn’t so bad in the big picture has been proven time and time again to be quite ineffective in influencing public opinion.”
It’s an interesting take, precisely because Musk has a penchant for being defensive and quoting statistics. For instance, Musk on July 1 retweeted this comment from Nick Bilton.
Additionally, Musk recently said that Tesla’s Autopilot software would save 500,000 lives every year if it was “universally available.”
Is Musk being uncouth here? Is this, in fact, an example of what not to do when handling a wave of negative PR?
Personally, I’m inclined to disagree. The first thing Tesla did when word of the accident became a matter of public record was publish a heartfelt blogpost titled “A Tragic Loss.” The post concludes with the following note:
The customer who died in this crash had a loving family and we are beyond saddened by their loss. He was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community, a person who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission. We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.
If anything, Musk’s comments and tweets as of late are simply responses to an onslaught of criticism and misinformation surrounding the accident and the dangers associated with Tesla’s Autopilot software. In other words, Musk is reacting to an army of misinformed armchair pundits who are all too willing to magnify an isolated incident in order to serve their pre-conceived notions about the future of self-driving cars.
Could Musk be more polite, so to speak, when it comes to addressing the matter? Perhaps, but I think it’s hard for Musk to stay quiet when blatant half-truths about his company are being passed around as fact. As Nick Bolton recently wrote for Vanity Fair about the Model S crash, “the media’s response shows how little it understands about technology.”
And as CEO of Tesla, I think Musk is not out of place to respond to criticisms about Tesla as they appear. Additionally, because the topic of self-driving cars is so important and misunderstood, having Musk weigh in personally is, I think, preferable to having him quietly sit on the sidelines and let the press shape the narrative as they see fit.