SmartBrief-Switch & ShiftThis post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & ShiftKeep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

A couple of months ago, a Tesla owner in California plugged his Model S into an outlet in his garage to recharge it, only to realize shortly thereafter that his garage was on fire!

The local Orange County Fire Authority isolated the problem to overheating of the Tesla adapter and the wall outlet that the adaptor was plugged into, but stated it was unclear which was the source of the problem. A Tesla representative quickly claimed that their analysis showed that the cause could have been “defective or improperly installed wall receptacles” in an apparent attempt to dismiss the melted Tesla adapter of any blame.

Given that electrical wall receptors don’t really have a reputation of igniting, one quickly raises one’s eyebrows at the Tesla PR statement. To make matters worse, Tesla CEO Elon Musk then told the press: “These are very rare events, but occasionally the wiring [in the receptacle in the wall] isn’t done right.”

This incident came after three Tesla fires (in which the cars were destroyed) occurred in a recent five-week period, which generated another defensive statement by Tesla that was a really mind-bending deflector. Specifically, Tesla described the media coverage of the fires as the press “seeking to make a sensation out of something that a simple Google search would reveal to be false.” If that isn’t enough to make you scratch your head, I don’t know what is!

When you’re defensive or evasive, it tends to look like either a cover-up, that you are not really taking the situation seriously, or both. Concerning the adapter/wall outlet fire, while Tesla quickly provided a software fix and issued a recall on the adaptors (which Tesla demanded be called a “remedy,” not a recall), their public statements conveyed a condescending tone. This kind of behavior sends a message that your pride is more important than thoroughly understanding the problem and making sure it never happens again.

Here are two simple principles to follow when a negative surprise happens:

  1. Fess up quickly and be objective: Tesla responded quickly but provided the press, and hence their customers, with defensive-sounding statements.
  2. Take 100% responsibility; don’t shift the blame: To be clear, it is appropriate to describe what you think happened and what you think the causes were, but make sure the primary message is that you are taking total responsibility for the incident and for fixing things.

Tesla has had a great record of being proactive in tackling the inevitable problems with producing a brand-new car. It is a shame these two incidents got under their skin and generated the defensive characteristics of a player of less stature.

Bob HerboldBob Herbold is an author, public speaker and retired executive vice president and chief operating officer of Microsoft. Before joining Microsoft, he spent 26 years at Procter & Gamble, the last five of those years as senior vice president of advertising and information services. Since retirement, Herbold has divided his time between working as a consultant for his own Herbold Group LLC and as writer and public speaker focusing on leadership. Bob has written three books. His latest, “What’s Holding You Back? 10 Bold Steps That Define Gutsy Leaders” (Wiley/Jossey-Bass) was released in February 2011. Connect with Herbold on Facebook and Linkedin.

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