Move over P. T. Barnum. The greatest publicist of all time may just have an equal. It is Elon Musk, formerly of PayPal and now of Tesla and SpaceX fame. Over the last decade or so, Musk has mastered the art of leveraging the news media to drive his company and brand. His latest stunt, placing a red Tesla Roadster into space, was sheer genius.
But it goes beyond just pulling off a cheap (figuratively not literally) stunt that makes Musk so good. It is how and the way he goes about it that makes him a master in the art and science of media relations. Here is what I mean:
His proactive media relations tactics almost always drive specific messages
Putting a Tesla into space is the perfect example. It was more than just about getting media coverage for his product. The electric vehicle is the future. What is more futuristic than driving your own vehicle to the next galaxy?
His visuals make the stories sticky and impactful
The red Tesla he sent into space has a mannequin in a space suit. The suit adds an element of realism. But the dark shield, keeping the face hidden, is the coup de grâce. It makes the driver anonymous, allowing viewers to picture themselves in the seat. It also protects against the uncanny valley phenomenon; the uncomfortable feeling people get when a humanoid looks too real.
Like a surfer, he waits until the conditions are optimal
Good surfers are patient. They sit on their board and position themselves for the next great wave. Musk is the master news-cycle surfer. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the news media was all over how Puerto Rico’s power grid had failed. Musk saw the wave, paddled hard and stood up. He announced that he was bringing his solar panels and battery storage to the island. And like a good surfer, he picked the sweet spot on the wave so that he could ride the wave all the way into shore. He installed his equipment at San Juan’s Hospital del Niño (children’s hospital).
When he has a good story, he runs with it
Musk can take a positive story and give it legs. He did this with a new manufacturing facility. Many times, when a manufacturer is looking for a new location, the process is so secretive the CIA would be jealous. But not Musk. It was a dog-and-pony show from the beginning, starting with him talking about his intentions to build a factory and then the process of looking. Later, when he had narrowed the search down to five states, he made an official announcement that he was going to build a factory. This was followed by the perfunctory announcement of the winning city, followed by the opening and then periodic production updates. The story had so many legs even a centipede was jealous. But then what did he do? Once the facility was up and running, Musk announced he would build four more.
He constantly stays on the offensive and captures all the attention
In much the same way Donald Trump dominated the news cycle in the primaries, Musk and his companies stay in the news. Not only does it continue to drive messages, but also helps when his companies are in challenging situations.
Rumors swirled that his car-manufacturing facility was not going to meet production goals. Most companies in this situation would go and hide, staying out of the news media until the problem was solved. Not Musk. He continued with his omnipresent news-making announcements. This allowed him to talk about other things, not just factory problems. And because he is always making news, no one accused him of the “quick, look over here” trick.
While Musk has been the master of the media for some time, the question remains if it is all a fake mermaid. With Q3 of 2017 being the worst quarter in Tesla’s history and SpaceX probably making very little or no money at all, we shall see.