Newsmaker: Ricardo Reyes, Tesla

While electric carmaker Tesla's global comms VP is unafraid to employ unique tactics, he's quick to credit lessons learned from other companies for shaping his strategy.

While electric carmaker Tesla's global comms VP is unafraid to employ unique tactics, he's quick to credit lessons learned from other companies for shaping his strategy.

In 2009, Tesla Motors cofounder and CEO Elon Musk wooed YouTube's Ricardo Reyes to head global communications and strategic marketing at the electric vehicle manufacturer.

"He shared his vision for the company and how communications and PR would be crucial to its growth," Reyes recalls. "I was hooked."

Tesla was founded in 2003 in Palo Alto, CA. Reyes describes it as "straddling the line between a tech and auto company."

It's certainly breaking auto industry paradigms. In a trailer for the documentary Revenge of the Electric Car (releasing this month) Musk proclaims Tesla "will not stop" until every car on the road is electric. From this mission to its cooperative stance toward other carmakers, Tesla does things differently and its communications approach is no exception. Reyes has assembled a team of eight people, all with varied backgrounds, who are responsible for communications (see sidebar).

"We have a double challenge - we're a new car company and we're introducing a brand new technology," he explains. "We're not doing formulaic PR. We decided early on to do everything with a tiny team and no outside help. We went through an IPO last June with no agency. If someone is good, we bring them in. There's no competition pound for pound with the caliber of the team we have. We're not afraid to do things completely differently."

Tesla opened its 17th store in mid-February in Milan. The Roadster, a sports car that sells for more than $100,000, is the first to market and there are more than 1,500 on the road. Production of the Model S, a sedan that will sell for about $50,000, starts next year. A low-cost mass-market model will follow.

Reyes, who says Tesla spends "almost nothing" on ads, deems direct communication with customers a top priority. Social media efforts began in earnest in 2009. Facebook is particularly vital as it allows the team to directly answer consumer questions. News is most often broken through a monthly newsletter or the corporate blog. A video of the Model S on the road, for example, was posted to the blog in lieu of issuing a press release. It sparked numerous media mentions.

"It's not just the team size nor the fact that ours is a fraction of traditional marketing budgets - we believe there are different routes on different channels," Reyes says. "We never say we need a certain amount of press releases or media coverage. We've done more than one major announcement through nontraditional channels in a dialogue context. It's a mistake putting out a press release and then just repeating that across all social networks. It's like using social media as the new photocopier."

Prepared for current role

Reyes began his career doing public policy work in DC, including a stint as deputy assistant US trade representative for public and media affairs, before joining Google in 2006 to head communications efforts around crisis, litigation, and competition issues. He calls his decision to join Google a "no-brainer," noting he was eager to work for a company "changing the world for the better." After Google bought YouTube, Reyes was dispatched to help deal with what Chad Hurley, cofounder and former CEO of YouTube, describes as a "hurricane" of issues, such as copyright litigation and global government-related issues.

"He's even-keeled," Hurley says of Reyes. "He was putting out fires while showcasing what YouTube was about. People were looking at the potentially bad and ignoring the positive. Some questioned if it was a smart acquisition by Google. He really had a plan of how to respond. In the past we played defense. With Ricardo, we started playing offense."

Reyes adds that his tenure at both Google and YouTube prepared him "to keep Tesla on the offense during our explosive growth."

Though Tesla reportedly doesn't expect to turn a profit until the Model S launches, it seems poised for growth. Last October, some of a $465 million Department of Energy loan was used to buy from Toyota the NUMMI plant, a former Toyota and GM joint facility, to produce the Model S. Tesla supplies powertrains and battery packs (which use Panasonic battery cells) to Toyota and Daimler, each of which has a $50 million stake in Tesla. Panasonic invested $30 million in November. Toyota's new RAV4 EV includes Tesla technology - a deal estimated to represent about $60 million for Tesla. It's not a joint venture and Tesla will not co-promote the car.

"It's Toyota's car and they're running the show," Reyes says. "We're very respectful in that we're suppliers. They have a lot to teach us. We're happy to work with other car companies to help them electrify their fleets. Our approach isn't just to sell as many cars as possible. We have a higher mission than that."

Though the US Transportation Department acquitted Toyota in early February in the unintended acceleration case, the company's reputation has certainly suffered. Reyes feels fortunate to have learned from the recall incident after discussing it with Toyota executives over dinner last year.

"I learned to keep communication lines extremely short," he says. "As we get bigger, we need to stay in open communication mode. The biggest thing I walked away with is to hire regional experts and then trust them."

Reyes got firsthand experience last October when faulty wiring in one Roadster prompted a recall. He says the tight communications loop between Tesla and its customers helped.

"We e-mailed all Roadster owners explaining the situation," he notes. "Then we published information on our website. We then put that out to reporters. We were as transparent as possible and acted as quickly as we could."

In keeping with its paradigm-busting ways, Tesla doesn't have a big lobby machine or even a government relations function per se. It's just two guys - Diarmuid O'Connell, VP of business development, and Jim Chen, an automotive regulatory authority formerly with the EPA, who joined Tesla as director of public policy and associate general counsel for regulatory affairs in August. Reyes' team backs them up when necessary. O'Connell "can't imagine a better representative" for Tesla than Reyes. And, like Hurley, he underscores how Reyes is unflappable.

"As the heat gets turned up, Ricardo seems to cool down," O'Connell adds. "He always has a strong point of view and inevitably it tends to be the right one from a strategy and tactical perspective. He has a tremendous feel for audiences and how to position the company and its interests at any given moment."

Reyes was born in Nicaragua, but grew up in Houston and attended Rice University. While he's happy to discuss Tesla, he's not too keen on talking about himself.

"It's not about Ricardo the man," O'Connell explains. "There's no ego. He exemplifies teamwork and facilitates it."

It's also clear Reyes truly believes in Tesla and is exactly where he wants to be.

"Every job I've had has been training for the position I have now," he says. "Government taught me this idea of the constant campaign - you're always educating the public in what you're trying to do, especially if you believe in it. I believe in Tesla's mission and I love being on the bleeding edge. I'm lucky I've been able to do that my whole career."


TESLA TEAM

Khobi Brooklyn. North American and corporate comms, based in the US, formerly with Atomic PR

Atsuko Doi. Asia comms, based in Tokyo, formerly with Google

Myra Pasek. EU comms, UK-based, initially joined Tesla's legal team

Camille Ricketts. North American and corporate comms, US-based, formerly with Venture Beat, an online venture capital news provider

Emily Ritter. Web content and social media, based in the US, formerly a whitewater kayaking guide

KC Simon. North American and corporate comms, based in the US, joined Tesla after graduating from Stanford University

Roberto Toro. EU comms, based in the UK, formerly with Fiat

Sarah Zimmermann. EU comms, based in Germany, formerly with German IT company Wincor Nixdorf


2009-present

Tesla Motors, VP, global comms and strategic marketing

2007-2009

YouTube, head of comms, public affairs

2006-2007

Google, communications, public affairs, PR

2004-2006

Bracewell & Giuliani, crisis, litigation, policy communications

2001-2004

The White House, deputy assistant US trade representative for public and media affairs

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