lifestyle PR + digital media

Tesla's PR stunt, and the importance of knowing how your stunt will turn out

December 4, 2019

Never ask a question you don’t know the answer to. Lawyers and non-lawyers alike (and especially those of us non-lawyers who consider our knowledge of the law advanced because we “studied” alongside Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny) know this adage, which instructs trial lawyers to never ask a question of a witness that could invite a surprise answer. If you don’t know the exact answer a witness will give, better to not ask the question rather than risk it. 

This advice holds up for PR professionals, too—a fact we were reminded of this week when Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk (who himself is currently defending himself in an unrelated but all-around absurd defamation lawsuit) attempted a publicity stunt at the unveiling of Tesla’s new Cybertruck. 

In an effort to prove that the Cybertruck’s armored glass could withstand a great deal of force, Musk and the truck’s lead designer, Franz von Hozhausen, threw a metal ball against the windows—and smashed them. Whoops!

The Tesla execs made light of the incident, and, according to Musk, 200,000 orders have been placed for the truck despite the snafu. But the moment was memed to the high heavens on social media, making Tesla and Musk the day’s punching bag. For an executive who prides himself on being an innovator, it’s not a great look to have your product not work the way you say it will (especially with a bunch of press and stakeholders in the room). 

An incident like this should teach PR pros the importance of having fully mapped out a PR stunt. Granted, for companies that, well, aren’t Tesla, engineered moments like the throw probably aren’t going to gain as much press—positive or negative—as Tesla’s did.

But that doesn't mean PR pros shouldn't carefully plan their publicity stunts to avoid unforced errors. Here’s what you should know about planning PR stunts.

  • Make sure the stunt actually sends and spreads the brand message you’re aiming to send. Attention for attention’s sake can help drive traffic to your site or boost name recognition, but the higher goal should always be to spread the brand message and engage potential long-term brand advocates and customers. Additionally, your stunt has to make sense for your brand or product. If you’re Chipotle but your stunt revolves around, say, giving manicures to strangers on the street, people will be confused as to why a fast-casual Mexican brand is giving out manicures. 
  • It helps to be funny, visually interesting, or daring. The whole point is to catch the public’s attention—so your stunt has to be catchy and flashy. 
  • Timing is everything. If the whole point is to garner press coverage, make sure you’re thoughtful about when and where the stunt will take place, allowing reporters to get there and fit it into their production schedules. If you're hoping to get covered on the morning news, you better be stunting early, and your location should be convenient for those morning show producers.
  • The stunt should be a surprise to passersby, but there should be no element of surprise for you, the marketing team. Think about the potential surprises and negative feedback—anything that could potentially go wrong. If your stunt involves food, is there a chance the food will be inedible? Is the stunt dangerous, allowing for the possibility that someone will fall and break their leg? Anything that will distract from the brand mission or give haters ammunition to say your product sucks does the opposite of what you want the stunt to do. 

A well-planned stunt can garner the desired attention for a brand—but it has to be well-planned. Otherwise, you’re just throwing a rock at a glass window.