Why Elon Musk is the PR Genius of the Twenty-First Century

Public relations and publicity stunts have significantly evolved since the days of Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, the original publicity showman of the 1800’s whom sadly used publicity tactics and event planning to attract attention to his traveling circus of exotic (and enslaved) animals. While it makes us sad that he exploited people and exotic animals for profits, there are several lessons to learn from Mr. Barnum when it comes to the mastery of public relations and publicity stunts. Back then when there was no instant form of communication let alone Smartphones and Twitter, wild circus shows with fire flames, little people dressed up in wild makeup and costumes definitely intrigued audiences to write about and pay for an entertaining show. P.T. Barnum always figured out not only how to attract an audience, but he also mastered how to get people talking about his show and writing about it in the local newspaper.

Fast forward to 2018, compared to the current media landscape and fast news cycle, Barnum’s 1800’s PR stunts seem like child’s play– or just your average day in Times Square. Over the decades since P.T. Barnum, entrepreneurs have had to get even more creative and hire PR agencies to come up with unique and mind-blowing PR stunts that capture people’s dwindling short attention span (thanks to social media and the Internet!).

Publicity stunts, or a planned event designed to attract the public’s attention to a brand’s product, service, event or new campaign launch, has a new P.T. Barnum of the twenty-first century (minus the animal exploitation). We’re talking about Mr. Elon Musk of Tesla Motors/SolarCity and SpaceX. As one of Silicon Valley’s most famous and adored tech entrepreneurs– Mr. Musk has taken publicity stunts to the next level.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years and aren’t familiar with Mr. Musk, he’s the guy who founded and sold PayPal. He then went on to invest all of his earnings into a new luxury solar car manufacturing startup that almost left him broke. But fortunately for him, the high-risk business gamble paid off and turned him into the billionaire he is today. In 2018, Tesla Motors is the top luxury car line that is 100% solar energy and is celebrated by environmentalists and tech geeks around the world. Once Tesla stabilized and went public on the stock market, Mr. Musk went on to divide his attention up between his growing car company and SpaceX, a rocket ship manufacturing company.  His goal, according to the press that has repeatedly interviewed him and written about him over the years? Colonize Mars! In 2018, this is still crazy talk to a lot of us earthlings. But it definitely a news angle that will grab reporter’s attention and make the headlines of all the top business and tech media websites.

Mr. Musk has an extraordinary gift as an engineer and businessman. That is undeniable. But what we are quite impressed with is his ability to use public relations and remake PR stunts to build a cult-like following and grow two major businesses into billion dollar entities.  He has gone above and beyond repeatedly capturing millions of people’s attention in person and online while getting them excited about buying a product that has been around for decades (a solar energy car) and doing something less than one percent of the human population has ever done (flown to space in a rocketship). And yet, Elon seems to be able to capture the American public’s attention time and time again with new and stunning events and PR campaigns. From building re-usable SpaceX rockets to creating basically the commercial cruise line version of rocket ships to send people (likely the famous and uber wealthy) to Mars… Elon is keen on one important component of PR: creativity and flavorful storytelling.

Mr. Musk wants to make humans an interplanetary species and used this simple idea with no real actions to back it up to garner serious global press from all of the top media outlets. If that news headline isn’t enough to blow your mind, we’ve put together some of our favorite successfully planned and launched PR stunts done on behalf of his companies. Hopefully fellow PR professionals and business owners can learn a thing or two about publicity from the South African-born, self-made billionaire.

  1. He launched a rocket ship into space with his Tesla luxury car  – Not only did his team design and make the rocket ship, they also built the Tesla Motors car. And put a fake spaceman in a space suit inside of the car with a video attached. He literally put his Tesla car AND SpaceX rocket ship in outer space! Talk about double product placement! It’s enough to launch a rocket into space… that in of itself it impressive. But to launch your own rocket with a luxury Tesla car that your other billion-dollar company designed and manufactured is quite the stunt of 2018. In fact, it doesn’t get any more PR stunt-worthy than THAT! While this crazy stunt obviously cost him millions of dollars to pull off, the buzz and press that both of his companies received were well worth the investment in his personal brand and his affiliated companies. While many small and even enterprise businesses don’t have a budget or the know-how to plan and execute a PR stunt like this, lessons and inspiration can be taken from this specific PR scenario. It reminds our team at Savory PR that you must be creative with your PR programs and launches! If the concept doesn’t excite and entertain you and your team, chances are you can do better! Creative strategy meetings are essential to coming up with the perfect creative campaign that meets your brand standards but also excites your target audience.
  2. Smoking some herb in an interview — While we’re Millennials who are based in New York City and don’t find anyone smoking weed on a podcast particularly interesting, the media and investors in Tesla had other thoughts and feelings. Mr. Musk recently appeared on the Joe Rogan Podcast, which aired on YouTube. During the almost 2.5 hour video interview, Joe lit up a joint and passed it to Elon. Elon took a puff and the conversation carried on as usual. Well, the Internet lost it’s damn mind. Twitter made hundreds of hilarious memes and this 60 second clip of a 2.5 hour long podcast caused stock holders and business contacts to temporarily lose their minds. While we appreciate Elon’s authenticity and candid moments throughout the podcast, it may have rubbed some people the wrong way. Nonetheless, he still managed to become a trending topic on Twitter and make all the major headlines on Bloomberg, CNN and CNBC. What others can learn from this PR fiasco is that it’s important to remember the various audiences that watch and pay attention with a close eye. While you make one audience happy, you may upset five other key audiences that affect your bottomline. Our thoughts– be careful in all brand communications! Whether it’s a simple email blast, press release, blog post or podcast… be thoughtful in all of your communication efforts and don’t say or do anything that may come back to bite you in the you-know-where.
  3. In the latest of stunts from Mr. Musk, he recently announced a partnership with a Japanese billionaire, name, to send 8 brave (and possibly crazy?!) artists around the Moon in 2023. Elon’s rocket company is sending a Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, along with up to eight artists/creatives around the moon in a SpaceX private spaceship. This week-long spaceship trip is planned to happen ideally in 2023 and the goal is to help send some of the best, and bravest, artists to outer space in an effort to promote art and the universe. Mr. Musk tied this intriguing announcement into the Big Falcon Rocket Launch announcement which took place earlier this month at SpaceX’s headquarters near Los Angeles. It’s the perfect creative announcement to capture the media’s attention and further promote his new spaceship launch. Launching a new spaceship on its own for Mr. Musk is kind of dull– but tying it into a billionaire sending artists around the moon in the newly announced spaceship is GENIUS PR!  Mr. Musk also further promoted his business idea of being the first private moon spaceship option for humans who want to spend a week in space! We don’t want to be redundant, but we want to drive home the point that being creative and shocking in your storytelling and PR launches is essential to capturing people’s attention. Be honest, but make your press release or press launch event exciting and flavorful!

While we haven’t covered all of Elon’s PR stunt-worthy actions over the course of his career (we’d be here all day!), this list represents our favorite and most buzz-worthy PR stunts and launch events that have succeeded in capturing the attention of mass audiences and ultimately elevating his company’s visibility, while building his personal public image, car sales, funding and stock prices. We’re fascinated with Elon’s fearlessness, but we hear the critics too– there is always room for improvement on both the business and PR front. Even in Mr. Musk’s case.

If you are a tech startup company that is ready to take your brand and business to the next level and would like to work with a PR agency like Savory PR to launch a strategic national PR campaign, let’s connect! Send us an email to set up a complimentary consultation: Samantha@Savory-PR.com. We’d love to work with you to elevate your public image and visibility.