Lessons from Tesla on how not to react to an unfortunate event

Giff Constable product management

There is a lot I admire about Tesla, but their recent reaction to the death of someone driving in autopilot mode is a lesson in what not to do for a product manager.

I hold no blame for Tesla for the accident itself. From what I have read, the victim was a brave man who enjoyed playing the role of test pilot, and who was smart enough to know some of the risks. I am saddened at his loss, but also celebrate his Chuck Yeager like spirit.

Tesla’s response put logic (and their own needs) first and human emotion second. While they titled their post “A Tragic Loss,” you had to get through four paragraphs before they actually got human about the crash at the end of the post.

I have come to realize that when something goes wrong, first you must own it, and then you must help people understand what actions come next.

By “own it,” I am not talking about Tesla accepting blame or apologizing. Neither are legally sensible nor seem to be appropriate here. But acknowledge that it happened. Acknowledge that it was sad. Acknowledge the impact. Do that *first*, not after a bunch of statistics on relative auto safety.

Then help everyone understand what is coming to improve things; what actions are underway to prevent similar problems from happening in the future.

The “crisis response” playbook has changed (for the better) in the era of the Internet. No longer can PR professionals control the message. A company does themselves a great disservice by equivocating, passing blame, or attempting sleight of hand. Tesla’s first reaction was to defend themselves. They missed an opportunity to build trust.

As a product leader, remember that people will react completely different to the same problem, or the same piece of software, entirely based on how you communicate, set expectations, and engage people’s humanity.