Communication after a crisis can be like navigating through a minefield. When a death is involved, the pressure is even more intense — like navigating through that same minefield in the dark without a map. It’s easy to say the wrong thing, offend others, not show enough sympathy, or show so much that the media brands it a “fake.” People watch your every move, and every mistake becomes magnified.
Elon Musk illustrated that recently, after his Twitter rant, following the death of a driver who was using the autopilot feature on his Tesla when he died. Media experts have since lost faith in Musk’s skills at handling both pressure, and the press.
So here are some tips on what not to do in the face of crisis, based on Musk’s behavior and that of Tesla on a whole.
Though Tesla’s blog post
regarding the incident was entitled "A Tragic Loss," the company started the blog post by first pointing out that the victim’s death was the first in 130 million miles, which is far less frequent than 1 in 94 million miles for other vehicles in the United States.
In doing so, Tesla belittles the significance of Joshua Brown’s death and gets defensive while trying to save face for the brand.
What this effectively does is to make Tesla seem unsympathetic and more concerned about its appearance in the media, than the fate of its customers. This is not a good look.CEO Elon Musk re-tweeted a user who pointed out that 1.3 billion people die in car accidents every year, but the death of one driver in a Tesla, and somehow all driverless cars become unsafe. In another blog post, the company then referred to Brown’s fatality as a “statistical inevitability.”
Tesla’s entire focus since Brown’s death has been on the company, the brand, and its image. Tesla shed very little light on the victim, his family, and how they plan to make amends.
To make matters worse, Musk told a Fortune magazine journalist that 500,000 lives would have been saved in 2015, if everyone had been using the autopilot technology — the same technology, which failed to detect the truck, which resulted in Joshua Brown’s death. Though statistically, this could be true, the timing couldn’t prove worse. There’s a time to share that information, but not so quickly after such a tragedy that the body has barely been laid to rest.
The CEO was also wrong to take to social media with these opinions — and then to Fortune Magazine.
This almost immortalizes the bad behavior. Social media platforms can amplify bad decisions and maybe even crafting it into pop culture for a time. The longer this issue remains in the media, the less likely the public is to believe Elon Musk, when he finally realizes the importance of showing some compassion, respect, and sympathy for his deceased customer.
Elon Musk’s behavior was not helpful, and while there maybe some truth to his statements, the inappropriateness comes from the wording and the timing, and a refusal to admit any wrongs or responsibility for the death of Joshua Brown. People begin to wonder if they experience fatalities using the autopilot system, will he treat their death as just another statistical expectation in the media as well?
Musk should plot his next moves and words carefully, because the world is watching.
Ronn Torossian is one of America’s foremost Public Relations executives as founder/CEO of 5WPR, a leading independent PR Agency. The firm was honored as PR Firm of the Year by The American Business Awards, and has been named to the Inc. 500 List. Torossian is author of the best-selling "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations." For more of Ronn Torossian's reports, Go Here Now.
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