Driving the green message

While some companies are jumping on the green bandwagon, others are creating the green wagons.

While some companies are jumping on the green bandwagon, others are creating the green wagons.

As much as many Americans complain about the gas guzzlers that Detroit is churning out, the auto industry has not yet produced enough viable alternatives to achieve anything like critical mass. And the image of the electric car is not usually a pretty one: either a wobbly three-wheeler or, perhaps, a glorified golf cart.

Knowing that, San Carlos, CA-based Tesla Motors set out to change the reality of the electric car. It designs and manufactures sleek, striking electric sports cars, and the waiting list for one - with a $92,000 price tag - is 338 names long.

It is a company founded in 2003 by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning from NuvoMedia, with Elon Musk, a cofounder of PayPal. Last year, they began selling their first product, the Tesla Roadster, which uses lithium-ion batteries and can drive 250 miles per charge. The founders didn't want to compromise good looks and power for efficiency, either: The car accelerates faster than a Porsche 911.

The Tesla Roadster has been featured in nearly every major media outlet in the country - from the LA Times to CNBC, Time, Forbes, and Good Morning America. The company had a presence at this year's Academy Awards. Vanity Fair is producing a story for the spring.

Remarkably - though not impossible given the rapid rise of the green trend in news coverage - "We do zero advertising," says Darryl Siry, Tesla Motors VP of marketing. "The interesting thing about Tesla is it's a poster child for the fact that you can build your brand on communications and PR. A lot of people want to talk to us, and that's a good thing."

Siry says Tesla made a concerted effort to make its Web site, teslamotors.com, as transparent as possible, and it includes a corporate blog to which its executives and engineers regularly contribute. The blog is popular with auto enthusiasts and Tesla devotees, and the comments show the level of dialogue between the two.

"It gets thousands of comments," Siry says. "Meaningful, thoughtful responses." As part of this openness, he also makes the executives very available to the press.

But while Tesla enjoys a lot of attention from media who are keen to cover a company that is walking the talk when it comes to the green trend, there are negatives.

"We're constantly getting pitched and approached by people who are off-message," Siry says. He cites the example of a blog, Treehugger.com, which just did a piece on Tesla at the Oscars. From that story's perspective, Tesla seemed very smug. Siry says the blog criticized Tesla because it thinks electric vehicles should be cheap and affordable for everyone.

But, Siry counters, "Our point is, in order to have mainstream electric vehicles, you have to make vehicles that people want to drive."

Many journalists who approach Tesla already have an opinion of the company, especially those from environmental outlets.

"The problem is, if the people coming to us are coming from an environmentalist stance, I need to get them on-message, on my message," Siry says. "[Their message is] probably going to be, 'Why is it $92,000? Why don't you do something cheaper?'"

Shane Smith, managing partner of auto industry specialist firm PCGCampbell, has been working with Tesla as its AOR since last summer. He says communicating on behalf of Tesla is straightforward because the company doesn't overpromise.

"A lot of people tell incredible stories about electric cars, but at the end of the day, very rarely is there an incredible breakthrough - in any industry," Smith says.

Tesla is in an unusual position, in that it doesn't have to chase down media waving its green flag, like many other companies are doing. Its product, an electric car, is inherently environmentally friendly. In the cluttered landscape of green PR, Tesla has its work done for it.

Other environmentally friendly - if not electric - cars have created PR initiatives that openly tout the vehicles' greenness.

The 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line has garnered significant coverage from mainstream and consumer press, including a piece on MSN.com's cars section that lauds it for being lower-priced and more efficient than other hybrids.

As an example of an event for the Vue, ClearBlue Communications set up and "planted" a series of Saturn greenhouses recently as a metaphor for Saturn's green initiatives.

The Toyota Prius is the original king of hybrid vehicles in terms of marketing. Toyota used PR to engage and influence thought leaders early on, such as a campaign by Phyllis Klein & Associates. The effort took place during the 2003 Academy Awards, when movie stars were encouraged to mention they rolled up not in a gas-guzzling, block-long limo, but in a Prius.

At Tesla, the buzz is still building, and so are the teams. Siry has stepped in as a company spokesman on a wide range of issues, from press to government, and he handles foreign press now, too.

Siry recently hired attorney and fellow auto enthusiast David Vespremi (who wrote Car Hacks and Mods for Dummies) as director of Tesla's PR.

"With [Vespremi] coming here, it's been recognized that we need another capacity to PR," Siry says. "We are only taking advantage of maybe the top 20% of opportunities. The next [percentage] of opportunities are good and valid; we just don't have the time."

Green machines

The following is a sample of vehicles marketed as energy-efficient, based on their miles per gallon and low emissions

  • Toyota Prius
  • Honda Civic Hybrid
  • Honda Fit
  • Nissan Altima Hybrid
  • Toyota Camry Hybrid
  • Kia Rio and Rio5
  • Ford Escape Hybrid
  • Venturi Fetish

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