The reported move by Tesla to dismantle their PR department in the US will very likely not impact their customers and likely will have little to no impact on Tesla for the foreseeable future.
But that's not the point. The marketing industry's reaction to this decision is forcing us to take a hard look at PR. This is not about Tesla discrediting the role of PR. It's about a pioneer reimagining the way we define and deliver public relations.
Tesla has a history of going about PR differently, and as widely reported had already ended its relationship with the media months ago. While it's certainly not a widely adopted or recommended tack for most companies to take, Tesla has something few other brands have: Elon Musk.
With Musk at the helm — one of the best pitch men in history — Tesla may have realized they don't need to use the standard approach of pitching and reacting to media requests. As the inseparable, if not seemingly irreplaceable face of the Tesla brand, Musk acts as a one-man news engine while the company's innovation, products and business performance are the fuel for that engine.
It also seems as though Tesla sees (and values) PR as more than simply driving earned media. By many reports, there are Tesla employees working with influencers, some on external communications and others managing the employee experience. The list is probably longer. These efforts touch upon many of the elements of modern PR. They're just defined differently at Tesla.
Modern PR can be divided into two core components; authentic communications and earned influence.
Authentic communications is about sharing good stories that are real, that resonate with your audience and are interesting enough so that people want to share them with others. Authentic communications can be delivered through memorable creative ideas, experiential activities, blogs, panel discussions, advertising, social and so much more.
Authenticity should be woven throughout all aspects of how a brand is delivered to its stakeholders. Tesla addresses this in its own way, through the voice of the founder and CEO, its product and product experience, its events and ultimately its business actions.
Earned influence is a modern take on the legacy of how most marketers view PR — as a tactical means to secure media coverage and bolster reputations. But pitching and reacting to media requests are only part of that. And by reducing its PR staff, Tesla is leaving the media out in the cold, privy to Elon Musk's musings only when he steps up to the mic or tweets.
But why take a different approach?
Tesla seems to know that doing something is more newsworthy (and drives more coverage) than just saying something.
Yes, Elon Musk has spawned news cycles with his words alone. But the business and brand has grown by delivering great products and challenging established ways of thinking in the automotive industry.
If you want great media coverage, focus on doing something newsworthy, don't just say something newsworthy. It's something Tesla knows but that many others may not want to admit.
For years people have debated if the PR industry was dying a slow death. The rise of social media and sponsored content, experiential marketing, brands as newsrooms, and countless other new ways to communicate have contributed to this narrative. The reality is that modern PR has never been more important and more pervasive than it is today.
Tesla isn't killing PR. It's just adapting PR to its current business needs.
Melissa Smith is managing director, PR and influence at Ogilvy New York and Dan LaRusso is group managing director, PR and influence for Ogilvy California.