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Power of China Social Media

Tesla China NEV

Hello, greetings from Shunyi for the last Thursday of April – 20th. Social media is a powerful marketing tool, we all know that. However, China’s culture has led to social media being even more potent. And that can also mean problematic. As Tesla China recently found out.

Tesla’s problem wasn’t unique. Not by a long shot. Nor is it just restricted to foreign brands in China. Even home grown local brands trip over their feet and end up scrambler to contain a firestorm. In some ways, social media in China is like having a big cat, as in lion or tiger, as a pet and your mascot. It can be very powerful. Very effective and in some ways intimidating for the competition. But, the cat is fickle. She can suddenly turn on you and tear your heart out in a blink.
It only needs one misstep. Not even that. One wrong toe hold.

Most people are aware of the Tesla situation thanks to the international mass media.
Who incidentally, mostly only looked at their social media feeds and concocted a shallow story around that. Facts and background deemed unimportant. Probably the temptation was too great. Here we have the ideal combination for a salacious bit of sensationalism. Not just another China problem, but also a chance to take down one of the high fliers.

In case you missed it, in a nut shell, a woman climbed atop of a Tesla vehicle at the Shanghai motor show claiming Tesla’s brakes failed. This based on an accident involving her fathers car.
Of course this was an ideal location and opportunity with global mass media present. The story went viral. In all ways. Suddenly Tesla was back in the headlines again. For all the wrong reasons.

It also created the inevitable social media storm on WeChat and Weibo in China. Probably, who knows for sure, it would have abated in a few hours or next day. The public’s attention span for this sort of thing is less than a gnat. But Tesla misstepped. Instead of apology, humbleness, or saying nothing, it went on attack. Accused the woman of being part of a stunt. This added fuel to the raging fires,. Suddenly the cat turned, many accusing Tesla of arrogance.

Even some of Tesla’s fans urged caution:

 “Tesla, don’t do this! Bring back your dark horse persona. Speaking up never does anyone any good.”


Several Gvt agencies became part of the act. Tesla was obliged to provide the data for the vehicle for the period leading up to the crash. This tended to suggest that for some time prior to the crash, the driver had been exceeding the limit and riding his brakes. Tesal also changed gears, becoming more contrite, issuing general apology and gratitude to its customers.

Meanwhile of course, the social media battle raged on between fans and detractors. Much as the never ending Apple V/s Microsoft wars. Die hard Tesla drivers and fans were also out in force, defending the company, castigating the woman and driver and those who “blindly followed and believed everything without any proof.”

“Anyone with even a little brain could see that the protester was a troubled person, but crowd mentality leads people to accuse the rich and powerful of making them into fools”

If Tesla has no problems, then sue the gossipers. They are not only tarnishing the name of Tesla, but also bringing Tesla drivers into disrepute.”


The loyal supporting fan army. Many raised the spectre of this being a marketing attack by one of China’s domestic EV makers suggesting they focus on their own quality..

“Now the data is out, and it shows that the brakes were not faulty and in fact they saved the driver’s life. Now Zhang (the protester) claims her data privacy has been breached. Who is pulling strings behind the scenes? Put your money in your product rather than into shady operations!”


Tesla would have been wise to leave it there. Rely on its not insignificant pool of drivers, fans and customers to fight for them. But no. Instead they took to social media with images of gifts that had “flooded into Tesla showrooms by loving customers as well as messages of support.”
This was quickly decried as fake, a poor attempt at PR.

“Tesla evaded the problem and wrote a letter of praise to itself,” in a “model of a bad PR campaign.”


Any marketing, social media or PR crisis needs fast attention and action. But perhaps sometimes the best action may be to do nothing. At least until the real depth of the situation has been analysed.
Certainly a knee jerk or shooting from the lip approach is not the best idea.
This is a time for cool heads, quick thinking but decisive and strategic action. A poorly handled reaction to a PR crisis in China can do more harm than the original problem.
Don’t make the cat angry.

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