We get that April Fools pranks can be seen as a way to humanize a person or company not otherwise associated with a sense of humor. But that can be a strong reason not to engage in a prank.
Three years ago, we wrote a blog about an April Fools prank on Good Morning America that we thought undermined the credibility of ABC News and of George Stephanopoulos.
This year's candidate for worst practical joke: Elon Musk.
Tesla Goes Bankrupt— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 1, 2018
Palo Alto, California, April 1, 2018 -- Despite intense efforts to raise money, including a last-ditch mass sale of Easter Eggs, we are sad to report that Tesla has gone completely and totally bankrupt. So bankrupt, you can't believe it.
This was followed by two other related tweets.
None of them funny given last week's news about a significant recall of 123,000 Model S cars that generated headlines like:
- "Tesla's Model S Recall Is Just Its Latest Problem” (WIRED).
- "Tesla recalls almost half the cars it ever built" (NBC).
- Tesla Recalls 123,000 Model S Cars Over Bolt Issue" (WSJ).
The recall is necessary to fix a power steering bolt, which seems like a fairly important issue to address. And also follows, as the Wall St. Journal noted, "as the electric-vehicle maker grapples with the aftermath of a fatal car crash." The Journal also pointed out that Tesla has about $10 billion in debt.
So the question we'd ask is, "Is this the right time for a CEO of a publicly held company to post a fake Tweet that Tesla is filing for bankruptcy protection?
Our answer is pretty simple: No. This is not a good time. Even, or perhaps, especially, on April Fools -- if only because it sends a message that the bad news doesn't matter.
There is never a good time, really, for a CEO to post as a joke that the company is declaring bankruptcy, followed by a photo of that CEO allegedly drunk.
The result: a 5 percent drop of its share price on Monday, the first day of trading since the faux-bankruptcy Tweets (one of which mentioned a last-ditch Easter egg sale to bring in cash to stave of bankruptcy). Worse, it continues a streak from Sept. 2017 that has seen Tesla lose 36 percent of its share price.
The lessons here include:
- Respect your corporate brand.
- Humor can humanize a brand but make sure it's the right kind of humor.
- It may be a good idea to humanize your brand but make sure the humor works with your brand and your corporate culture.
- Don't joke around when you've had bad news because that makes it seem like you're not taking the bad news seriously.
- If you've had to issue a substantial recall and $10 billion in debt, don't joke about bankruptcy -- especially if you're the CEO of a publicly held company.
We assume Tesla's PR had nothing to do with the Tweet prank prior to Musk publishing it. But they have a lot to clean up now. That's an unforced error the company didn't need.