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Does Elon Musk even need a PR department?

October 8, 2020, 1:52 PM UTC

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The Tesla-focused news site Electrek reported this week that Tesla has effectively given up on conducting public relations. The company, Electrek’s Fred Lambert wrote, has disbanded its PR department altogether, leaving no one to respond to press queries. The New York Post tried to get the electric carmaker to confirm the report. Tesla didn’t respond.

I confess a grudging respect for Tesla. Everything it and its unusual CEO Elon Musk do is news. The company makes the most innovative cars on the market. Its CEO is adept at drawing attention to himself and his companies. Despite prodigious yo-yoing due to scrapes with securities regulators, missed deadlines, and defiance of pandemic-driven health laws, Tesla market capitalization is about $400 billion.

Who need to suck up to reporters when the story is that good?

Tesla joins a long list of unusually successful founder-led companies with an odd relationship with the press. In Google’s earliest days its co-founders were standoffish at best with journalists. I remember telling some put-upon public-relations official at Google that if the company kept treating the media with contempt the press would return the favor when times got tough. Walmart for years had the barest of PR operations. I wrote in my 2012 book how Apple was no place to learn PR because the company barely practiced it under Steve Jobs.

There are mitigating circumstances. Jobs was a master of dealing directly the journalists he deemed worthy. Indeed, Apple deployed a two-tier strategy: It cooperated with what it deemed to be top-tier publications and ignored the rest.

Musk too communicates when and with whom he wants to. He gave a rip-roaring and revealing interview to Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. And he tweets nearly as much as a certain ailing politician. Wednesday alone the Tesla and SpaceX CEO tweeted about pastries in Germany, the history of auto-industry bankruptcies, battery pack construction, and more.

Eventually, major companies all come around to playing the PR game. It didn’t take long for Google to hire an army of professional publicists, who today are responsive to a fault. Apple under Tim Cook conducts PR like any normal company. Walmart, after taking baby PR steps decades into its existence, does the same.

Some day Tesla will too.

Adam Lashinsky


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


Nobody can be as agreeable as an uninvited guest. A night after a fly became one of the most talked-about participants in the vice presidential debate, Facebook is getting tougher on some political ads. The social network said it would crack down on so-called poll-watching posts that encourage people to intimidate voters. And, in addition to the prior ban on running new political ads the week before Nov. 3, now Facebook says it will also stop running all political ads after the election.

The scales of JSON. No flies landed during the Supreme Court's hot and heavy arguments over the biggest software case in decades. Oracle says Google's reverse engineering of some Java APIs to use in Android violates copyright protections. Google says the types of APIs in question shouldn't be protected and/or it is "fair use" to use them. Sure, you can read a summary of the day, but legal writer and lawyer Sarah Jeong's live-tweeted thread is much more interesting and entertaining.

Do that to me one more time. About 20 years ago, AT&T bought several huge cable TV providers, saw its stock price sink, and unwound the deals at a huge loss. The past couple of years, AT&T bought DirecTV and Time Warner and its stock price has been sinking. You know what comes next. Maybe they should have bought Twitch, the video game streaming service that Amazon picked up for under $1 billion in 2014. Despite YouTube and Facebook's best efforts to create competition, Twitch garnered 91% of all viewing in the third quarter.

Medium blue. Speaking of split-offs, IBM shocked investors on Thursday morning with a plan to spin off its managed infrastructure services business into a separate company. "IBM will focus on its open hybrid cloud platform and AI capabilities," CEO Arvind Krishna explained. "NewCo will have greater agility to design, run and modernize the infrastructure of the world's most important organizations." What's left of IBM will have annual revenue of about $60 billion versus $20 billion for the new issue. IBM's stock price, down 7% so far in 2020, jumped 14% in pre-market trading on Thursday.

Battle for the Planet of the Gigahertz. In the gnip-gnop world of computer processors, Intel sneak-announced its 11th-generation desktop CPU line, dubbed Rocket Lake, a day ahead of AMD's planned intro of its competing Zen 3 chips. Rocket Lake chips, arriving early next year, will be aimed at gamers who want the fastest clock speeds, Intel says. We've been stuck around 5 GHz for years, but Intel hinted at 7 GHz speeds, which would be...very fast. I would check for a giant aquarium cooler before getting too excited, though.

Shimmering just over the horizon. The U.K. Parliament's Defence Committee issued a report accusing Chinese telecom gear maker Huawei of "clear evidence of collusion" with the Chinese Communist Party. That's a step up in rhetorical broadsides from prior investigations, but as my colleague David Meyer notes, "The report did not provide any actual details of this evidence." Back in the USA, the Trump administration is considering restrictions on the payment platforms of Chinese app owners Ant Group and Tencent, Bloomberg reports.


The pandemic-induced move to remote schooling has shined a spotlight on the uneven availability of reliable Internet connectivity. Reporter Monica Chin at The Verge dug into how that unevenness is hurting kids in rural and exurban areas.

Cilla Green is a music teacher for the Caddo Hills school district in southwest Arkansas. Over half of Green’s students don’t have internet that allows them to stream — some have satellite, some have bad cable, and none have a high-speed connection. The district, when planning for a blend of online and in-person instruction, was taken by surprise.

“We didn’t realize how many of our students did not have that availability,” Green said. “I thought some of our students should be able to stream and most of them were like ‘No, we have internet service through our phones and it’s not very good’ or ‘I have internet service but I can’t do any streaming, it’s only good for email.’”


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I guess you could call it the ultimate skeleton in your closet, but Christie's auctioned off a complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil set for $31,847,500 on Wednesday. No word yet on who won or what happens next to the creature, which is known as STAN.

Aaron Pressman