Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been bullish in his defense of his company following the death in May of a driver using the car’s “autopilot” feature, even claiming that in the last year “500,000 people would have been saved” if the feature was widely available.
But 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.
Joshua Brown was killed in Florida in May after neither he nor the car’s autopilot system detected a truck crossing the highway ahead of him. Nearly one month later, on the same day as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced an investigation into the accident, Tesla released a blogpost which opened by defensively pointing out that Brown’s death was “the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles”.
The following day, Musk retweeted Vanity Fair columnist Nick Bilton saying: “1.3 million people die a year in car accidents. Yet, 1 person dies in a Tesla on autopilot and people decry driverless cars as unsafe”. And on Wednesday in another blogpost, the company described Brown’s death a “statistical inevitability”.
Musk earned his fortune through the payments site PayPal. The billionaire owns the private space company SpaceX, and has occasionally been compared to Tony Stark, the billionaire from Marvel’s Iron Man comics.
This week, Musk also joined the fray in emails to a journalist from Fortune magazine, claiming that half a million lives would have been saved last year if all cars were fitted with autopilot.
The journalist was asking questions as to why Tesla notified the NHTSA immediately of the accident but waited roughly a month – until regulators opened an investigation – before announcing it to the public.
As Fortune reported, that delay is key because 11 days after the accident but just over two weeks before it was made public, Tesla and Musk sold $2bn of Tesla stock.
After the magazine published the article, Musk posted on Twitter again to attack it, saying that the accident “was material to you – BS article increased your advertising revenue. Just wasn’t material to TSLA, as shown by market”.
Jonathan Bernstein, president of the consulting firm Bernstein Crisis Management, said Musk’s behaviour was a perfect case study in the wrong way to handle this sort of crisis.
“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 said.
“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,” he added.
In a second blogpost released on Wednesday, Tesla addressed the Fortune article directly. “When Tesla told NHTSA about the accident on May 16th, we had barely started our investigation. Tesla informed NHTSA because it wanted to let NHTSA know about a death that had taken place in one of its vehicles,” the post said, adding that they had not been able to send a Tesla investigator to Florida until 18 May – the day of the SEC filing.
The post also reiterates the statistical claims about the relative safety of the autopilot system.
Musk, famously, does not respond well to criticism. In 2013, in response to a poor review in the New York Times for the Tesla Model S in which the car stalled on the freeway, Musk tweeted that the article was “fake”. In 2011, Musk and Tesla sued the BBC for libel and malicious falsehood following a bad review on the motoring show Top Gear. The suit was later thrown out.
“Unfortunately, I think Tesla has lost a lot of credibility in how they’ve handled this crisis and the death of one of their customers,” said Sam Singer, the president of crisis communications firm Singer Associates. “It’s been an error-filled response since the very beginning.” He said that the company should have immediately issued a warning.
Now, he said, Tesla is in a mess of its own making. “I think the way the public views this whole situation is one of a cover-up, rightly or wrongly,” he said. When something goes wrong, Singer said, the best thing to do is disclose it immediately.
According to Bernstein, resorting – as Musk did – to statistics to try to put an accident or malfunction which resulted in a death into a wider context, however well-meaning, was ill-judged. “I haven’t seen anybody foolish enough to try the statistics approach in a long time,” he said.
Asked what advice he would give to Musk, Bernstein said that he should “take a step back, take a deep breath, and practice delivering a message that communicates compassion, confidence, and competence”.
“And if you can’t do that, keep your mouth shut,” he added.
This article was written by Nicky Woolf in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th July 2016 12.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010