On the 5th of October, 2021, A San Francisco federal court jury ruled that Tesla pay $137 million in damages to a former employee, Owen Diaz who accused the tech giants of ignoring the incessant discrimination and racial abuse he was subjected to during the time he worked for the company. Diaz, a former elevator operator for the firm, claimed that racist slurs were hurled at him on a daily basis and when he informed his supervisors, no actions were taken.
However you want to see these events: an individual who has been subjected to a hostile work environment receiving some recompense, the unveiling of the façade that was Tesla’s image as a progressive and sensitive organization or simply just a misunderstanding. One thing is clear, Tesla has landed itself in crisis and, if nothing else, must communicate its way out. So what do you do, when your stock on the public opinion market is plunging?
HOW TO COMMUNICATE IN CRISIS
- IS IT TRUE? Tesla must first confirm the validity and authenticity of the claims. Did they really know of the acts of discrimination and racism occurring within the organization? Did the supervisors really ignore complaints from Diaz and equally afflicted employees on this particular matter? It is imperative that they adjust their perspective to accommodate that of the public and their customers, whose faith in their ethical conduct could be drastically affected. As there is a strong identification of customers with the brand, Tesla will most likely survive this hit in the long run.
- IS THE CRISIS SEVERE? A statement by the human resources VP reads; “….While they all agreed that the use of the N-word was not appropriate in the workplace, they also agreed that most of the time they thought the language was used in a ‘friendly’ manner and usually by African-American colleagues.” This attempt to downplay the severity of the matter usually pales in comparison to a blanket apology or admittance of responsibility. I don’t blame her too much though, admittance usually leads to liability.
- BRAND IDENTIFICATION Unsurprisingly, a leading global automobile brand like Tesla (with its eccentric CEO Elon Musk) has amassed a wealth of followership and brand loyalty. This makes it relatively convenient to convince the general public of their “true image” in the wake of such an ugly series of events.
NOW, WHAT TO DO….
In this midst of this crisis, it’s important to note that three main concerns for Tesla are:
To prevent a repeat of the occurrence, to reduce the perception of brand intentionality and to mitigate the perceived responsibility of the organization as much as possible.
Finally, of the four recommended communication responses, Polishing Halo and Inoculation seem the most advisable.
Polish the Halo: A brand as influential as Tesla certainly has a significant amount of goodwill. It can leverage on this to show that the situation is nothing more than an outlier of an outlier. They should rely on the existing trust levels and emphatically restate their commitment to tackling racial issues as it is within their capacity to do so.
Inoculation: A “vaccine” for the crisis virus, the inoculation method anticipates any possible crisis that could either materialize on its own or be attached to another (in this case the latter). It then suggests a counter-argument that refutes the premise of the crisis. In this case, Tesla could face further discrimination law suits, public backlash, boycotts and even strikes. They must be prepared to fight and win each battle with the right combination of the communication arsenal. They can’t expect to be let off the hook by simply saying that it was a slip of tongue. Yeah right, it was as much a slip of tongue as slavery was a 450-year unpaid internship