Why Elon Musk's defensiveness over Tesla crash is a bad move

The entrepreneur has a right to be annoyed with some of the recent media coverage, but his priorities are all wrong.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020
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It can be difficult to handle a company crisis – more so when it’s so serious that injury or death is involved. Perhaps it’s most difficult of all when you’re so entwined with the business it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees, which may well be the case with Elon Musk and Tesla. 

Recently, there have been two widely-publicised crashes involving Tesla – one a fatal accident sparking much discussion over whether technology failed, and the other leaving the driver and passenger injured. The carmaker said there was ‘no evidence’ Autopilot had a role to play.

Beyond any other concern, the clear priority here is responding with compassion to what’s a tragic set of circumstances and offering condolences to the bereaved. 

In these sorts of situations, figures and statistics are always going to have to take a backseat. Instead, it’s the company’s ability to show its human side that should come to the fore. That’s the initial priority for the public, not being repeatedly told that it was an anomaly and to look elsewhere for worse incidents. Responding to highly emotive issues with stat after fact after stat will never have much success.

So Tesla’s blog post responding to the events could perhaps have done with a little restructuring. It opened with, ‘We learned yesterday evening that NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) is opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a recent fatal crash that occurred in a Model S. This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles.’

It’s not until the very last paragraph where Joshua Brown, the individual who lost his life, is mentioned. Musk meanwhile, has been on Twitter robustly defending his company from what he feels have been sensationalised stories about the incident. Fortune magazine has been a particular focus for him – it ran a report claiming Tesla and Musk made $2bn from selling stock on May 18 in a public offering, without disclosing the crash on May 7.

Of course it’s important to clear up misconceptions and convey to the public that such tragedies aren’t commonplace. It can be dangerous to let stories run away with themselves without correction. But when responses to crisis begin defensively, it’s a slippery slope from there. A comparison here is Merlin CEO Nick Varney, whose measured and compassionate response to the Alton Towers crash last year, won respect from the public in what was a very difficult time for the company. A wrong move from Varney could’ve made things a whole lot worse.

Sometimes a shorter immediate response to a crisis can be more effective - showing compassion and competence in dealing with the aftermath should be top of the to-do list. Defensiveness and retaliatory accusations will only make it look like you've something to hide, even when it couldn't be further from the truth.

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