One of the most remarkable things that one can witness is the birth and spread of a narrative. Narratives are powerful, as they are capable of affecting and perhaps even changing the perception of people on a particular person or topic. Such a narrative is forming in the Tesla-sphere today: one that completely ignores a company’s proven efforts to battle the coronavirus, and one that brands the electric car maker’s CEO as a de facto villain that cares not for his employees.
Amidst the ongoing issues surrounding the reopening of the Fremont factory, Tesla publicly shared a Return to Work Playbook that it will be using to protect and prevent its workers from contracting the coronavirus. The strategies outlined in the playbook are modeled after the company’s efforts in Gigafactory Shanghai, which successfully battled the virus when it was ravaging China. Tesla’s Shanghai plant was barely affected by the pandemic, and it is back in full operations today.
Alameda County officials have not given Tesla the green light to resume operations in the Fremont plant, a factor that has resulted in heated online discussions between Elon Musk, TSLA critics and supporters, and local government officials. County officials argue that Tesla is yet to meet certain guidelines that would allow its formal approval to reopen the Fremont factory, but no details about these criteria have been released thus far. This has resulted in a rather sticky situation. The county says Tesla is not fulfilling safety guidelines, but it would not specify which.
Strangely enough, Alameda County has also not discussed which parts of Tesla’s Return to Work Playbook are inadequate. A look at the playbook shows several intensive safety protocols that the company will be adopting to prevent the spread of the virus. But even the existence of the playbook itself, and more importantly, its contents, do not seem to be acknowledged by representatives of Alameda County when they speak against the electric car maker’s intentions to reopen the Fremont plant.
CEO Elon Musk has ordered Tesla’s Fremont factory to reopen despite opposition from Alameda County officials. Musk even noted that if anyone were to be arrested due to the factory’s reopening, it should only be him. Such a move has triggered a wave of negative coverage on the CEO, with some articles claiming that Musk is “asking” to be arrested, or “daring” law enforcement to apprehend him. A narrative has also formed suggesting that Tesla and Musk are “forcing” Fremont’s employees to build cars without any regard for public safety. A report from The Washington Post even quoted a Fremont factory worker who reportedly stated that “we are extremely frustrated, angry, scared, that Elon is putting his cars before his workers.”
Such a narrative is compelling, of course, and it makes for a good story. Every tale needs a villain, and Musk, with his outspoken, controversial remarks about the ongoing lockdown, is the perfect target. What is missing from this narrative is the fact that Musk himself has been quoted time and time again, in both spoken and written form, that workers at the plant are not forced to come to work at all. “I’d like to be super clear that if you feel the slightest bit ill or even uncomfortable, please do not feel obligated to come to work. I will personally be at work, but that’s just me. Totally ok if you want to stay home for any reason,” Musk wrote back in March.
A look at the social media feeds from Fremont factory workers paint a much less controversial picture amidst the facility’s reopening as well. Inasmuch as mainstream reports today are running with a narrative that suggests Tesla is forcing employees to catch the virus or perish for the sake of Musk’s pockets, such sentiments do not seem universal for the company’s workforce. Some workers at the factory have noted that they appreciate that work is being resumed, and that the company is indeed following through with its stringent anti-pandemic strategies.
But such a scenario does not paint a narrative that is as compelling as a Machiavellian CEO forcing thousands of employees to perish for his personal profits. If Tesla is simply using a playbook that is tried and tested in Shanghai, and if workers are actually appreciative of the factory’s reopening, the anti-Elon Musk narrative gets lost. If there are no evil CEOs and mass numbers of employees being abused, Tesla’s Fremont facility becomes just a regular car production facility that is reopening its doors after a shutdown: one that is no different than car factories that are already open or are poised to reopen in the coming days.
Unfortunately, the draw of Musk and Tesla and their surrounding narratives are simply too tempting to ignore.