10 things every brand should do in a crisis, and why Tesla is still getting it so badly wrong

Dom Burch is the founder and MD of Why Social, a strategic marketing consultancy, and former senior director of marketing innovation and new revenue at Asda. Trained in PR, Dom has spent the last 17 years in a variety of comms roles at Asda, Direct Line and Green Flag including head of PR and head of social.

On 7 May someone tragically died in a car accident involving a Tesla car.

It was the first time there'd been a fatality involving a self-driving car on autopilot.

Unfortunately, it was sadly predictable and only a matter of time.

The fact that the company involved was so poorly prepared for this inevitable crisis is not only shocking, but a stark reminder of why PR teams need to act as the conscience of a business before, during and after events like this.

Your reputation as a brand is forged at times like these.

How you behave, what you actually do and when, and what you say will define how people perceive you for years to come.

Many senior executives still wrongly assume they can't express sorrow for fear of accepting responsibility.

Or that not knowing all the facts prevents them from saying anything at all.

All too often heads are buried in the sand hoping it will pass. It never does.

The key question to have front of mind in any crisis is simply: "What did you do when you found out?"

It's the opening line for every Watchdog interview of note. What did you do?

Did you take responsibility and act with integrity? Or did you blame someone or something else? Did you try to deflect attention or did you welcome it, did you openly engage?

Were you human?

Tesla chose to keep quiet for a month. Then act defensively, quoting facts about how many lives would be saved in the future by autopilot cars.

Had Tesla followed this simple 10 point guide, developed by Nick Agarwal when he was head of comms at Asda, it could have easily avoided the current media storm, and actually enhanced its reputation, not put it at risk.

Here's what it should've done as soon as it knew about the accident on day one.

1. Say who you are and express care, knowledge, regret:

“I’m Elon Musk the CEO of Tesla, I immediately came here because I

was concerned about the safety of one our customers who has tragically died. I’m shocked at today’s events.”

2. Summarise the facts:

“It’s too early to know precisely what happened, but here’s what I do know. At xxxx this morning I received a

call from * Police to say that a collision had taken place involving one of our vehicles and another vehicle.”

3. Describe how quickly you have responded:

“We immediately put our emergency contingency plans in place and I came here straight away and made my way to the scene of the accident.”

4. Describe who is helping you respond to the crisis:

“Clearly we’re liaising very closely with the Police and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) here in the *”

5. Say whether the situation is stable:

“We believe we have the situation under control. No other Tesla vehicles are affected by the tragic events of today.

6. Give advice:

“The important thing now is that customers follow the following advice xxxx. …”

7. Say how we’re co-operating with others:

“We will work closely with the authorities until they get to the bottom of what

precisely happened this morning…”

8. Say what’s being done to ensure the safety of others:

“We will ensure that all of our autopilot safety features are independently checked again to ... ”

9. Say what’s being done to protect the environment:

[Not necessarily relevant here]

10. Thank everyone for their help and indicate when the next update will be:

“I’d just like to thank everyone for being here and tell you that my intention, once we’ve got more details about the incident, would be to talk to you again later this afternoon/tomorrow morning at…”

Yesterday Tesla posted another blog to its own site, nearly two months after the tragic accident, and it is still continuing to get it terribly wrong, choosing to have a go at Fortune Magazine for pointing out that Tesla and CEO Elon Musk sold £2bn shares in June, before the accident was in the public domain.

According to the Guardian, a Fortune journalist was simply asking questions as to why Tesla notified the NHTSA immediately of the accident but waited roughly a month before announcing it to the public.

It's not too late to make amends, but in my view it is quickly running out of road.

Follow Dom on Twitter @DomBurch

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