How to Energize Public Relations Like Elon Musk

Elon Musk has achieved cult hero status in the media, primarily because of his audacious goals to change the world and a bold entrepreneurial style.

Tue May 17, 2016 - National Edition
Brian M. Fraley

Elon Musk has achieved cult hero status in the media, primarily because of his audacious goals to change the world and a bold entrepreneurial style.
Elon Musk has achieved cult hero status in the media, primarily because of his audacious goals to change the world and a bold entrepreneurial style.

Elon Musk has achieved cult hero status in the media, primarily because of his audacious goals to change the world and a bold entrepreneurial style. With deep roots in the Silicon Valley, his current ventures involve his mission to mainstream electric cars with Tesla and colonize Mars through SpaceX.

Musk's compelling story was told for the first time in a biography called “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” by Ashlee Vance. It's an outstanding read that I believe contains a lot of parallels to the construction equipment and manufacturing industries.


One of the compelling parts of this modern day Henry Ford; however, is his hands-on, obsessive approach to public relations despite trying to balance the management of two expanding companies, both of which are trying to accomplish audacious goals. Musk is a big picture, visionary thinker, but he understands the power of public relations.

While he has become somewhat of a media darling and a cult hero, he has faced a great deal of public adversity along the way. His trials and tribulations have included struggling with establishing two start-ups, countering non-believers, borderline bankruptcy, and dismissing claims that Tesla and SpaceX don't make money. He continues to rely on public relations to embed the Tesla and SpaceX brands, in addition to his own, into the American psyche. And it's working.


Musk understand that good public relations is both proactive and reactive. While it's important to have a game plan when things go wrong, it's even better to track potential problems like a heat-seeking missile and destroy them quickly before they have a chance to metastasize.

Vance says: “On the marketing front, Musk would run daily Google searches for news stories about Tesla. If he saw a bad story, he ordered someone to 'fix it' even though the Public Relations people could do little to sway the reporters.”

Is Musk a control freak? Perhaps. Is he obsessive-compulsive? Perhaps. He does; however, understand the importance of controlling the conversation around his brand.

What are you doing to stay up to date on the conversation around your brand? Do you have Google alerts set up for your firm and principals? Do you conduct periodic online searches? Are you reading trade magazines and local newspapers? The discussions, both good and bad, will happen. You can either ignore them and allow the damage to be done or play an active role and control the outcome.


Vance reports: “Marketing people who made grammatical mistakes in e-mails were let go, as were other people who hadn't done anything 'awesome' in recent memory.”

This is obviously an extreme reaction that I can't advocate. The lesson that should be taken away from this is the demand for extreme attention to detail.

Public relations is serious business. This is your firm's reputation after all. And your reputation is directly correlated with your sustainability as a company.

Are you issuing press releases or posting company updates on your website with typos? Are you sending guest articles to trade magazines with grammatical errors or mismatched photo captions? These types of mistakes will get you negatively branded by editors and could affect your ability to get published. If the mistakes are limited to your website, those that visit will leave with a negative impression.

As far as “doing something awesome,” this is the bar that you should always set high. You're struggling to stand out in packed marketplace. Only the best content will stand out. Unless you're an architect, creativity is probably not your forte so tap into your marketing department or agency. Bring passion to your product or service and publicity will find you.


Musk is masterful in the way he organizes and conducts events to roll out new products. The book discusses an unusually difficult period of bad press and customers railing about product delays and how he responded at a packed product launch event to display a Tesla motor:

“Dressed in a leather jacket and slacks, Musk started talking about the motor's properties and then put on a performance worthy of a carnival strongman by lifting the hundred-or-so-pound hunk of metal. 'He picks this thing up and wedges it between his two palms,” Solitto said. He's holding it, and he's shaking and beads of sweat are forming on his forehead. It wasn't so much a display of strength as a physical demonstration of the beauty of the product.' While the customers complained a lot about the delays they seemed to sense his passion and share his enthusiasm for the product.”

If you're a construction equipment dealer or manufacturer, or even a product or material supplier, how do you get your audience excited about your new products? You don't necessarily have to showboat like Elon Musk, but you should add interest to your product launch event. Is it hands on? What can you demonstrate? How can you add visual interest and fun to the demonstration?

Perhaps you're a design firm introducing a new service. You might consider organizing an event at your office or on the jobsite to demonstrate the service.

If you're dealing with a visually-oriented high-tech service like 3D Laser Scanning or BIM, you have a head start. What if you have a dry service like stormwater management? Perhaps you can roll out the service at a detention basin you designed and explain your design process and how it functions. The possibilities are endless and vary based on the situation and objectives.


Vance discusses the setbacks Musk faced as he tried to get Tesla off the ground, in addition to the typical issues of product recalls and resistance to price increases. This is what he says about the response: “…Musk has tried to turn any snafu with a Tesla into an excuse to show off the company's attention to service and dedication to pleasing the customer. More often than not, the strategy has worked.

Musk understands that bad press is sometimes unavoidable. His strategy is about countering and outshining the bad news with positive news. If you have an accident on a bridge construction project, for example, look for positive news to offset that negativity. Did you support a charity? Better yet, are you celebrating a landmark on another project with no lost-time injuries?


“He comes from the school of thought in the public relations world that you let no inaccuracy go uncorrected,” said Vince Sollitto, former communications chief at Paypal. “It sets a precedent and you should fight every out-of-place comma tooth and nail. He takes things very personally and seeks war.”

How many times have you been misrepresented in the media? I know contractors that complain about a certain news outlet that repeatedly reports false information and publishes inaccurate quotes. Whether you're issuing a news release, a statement, or being interviewed by the press, rule with an iron fist when it comes to accuracy.

Some AEC firms dismiss public relations with a “sit back and let the talkers talk” attitude. That's a mistake when you consider that your firm's livelihood is intrinsically tied to its reputation.

Bad publicity hammers away at your reputation over time until the nail is so deep that the sharpest claw struggles to extract it. Your best option is to think like Elon Musk and keep the energy flowing into your public relations efforts.

Source: “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” by Ashlee Vance

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