Staff members at Tesla Shanghai booth minutes before the incident. Source: Reuters.
It took less than 2 minutes to turn Shanghai Auto Show 2021 into a PR nightmare for the US automaker.
19th April was supposed to be the perfect day for Tesla. Its many weeks carefully prepared booth polished into the smallest details, was suppose to shine among the competition. Instead, it was completely ruined by a single woman. Nobody will ever care about what Tesla actually unveiled in Shanghai, it will be forever remembered as a Protest on the roof event.
When the dust settled, emotions calmed (and we laughed enough watching five security guys being beaten by their own umbrellas which they used as a curtain against the protestor), we had time to analyze these events better: Unfortunately, it makes a picture of the brave woman facing alone multibillion-dollar company falls apart.
The protestor, referred only to as Zhang, documented her journey on her social network. As pointed out by some Weibo users analyzing her pictures, she arrived at Shanghai Auto Show in a Nio car (there was a Nomi robot on-screen) which Zhang later confirmed. Also, 19th – 20th April was the show only for journalists or holders of media passes. From a photo of Zhang’s media pass (which she uploaded on Weibo) is seen that the pass is issued in a name of company Webasto, which is a German-based automotive supplier with a wide range of customers, including Nio, excluding Tesla. However as far as I knew, media passes can be bought on Taobao or even in front of the show’s entrance, so this might not have big importance.
As for now, Zhang deleted all mentioned pictures from her Weibo.
Deleted picture of the Nio interior of the vehicle which brought protestor to Shanghai Show. Source: Weibo
What might matter more is, that Zhang wasn’t protesting alone. As we can see from the video, there is at least one more woman with the same t-shirt and also there is an anchorman and cameraman working together – firstly shouting that “Tesla is beating Chinese citizens” and later, when Zhang got detained, giving a prepared speech on camera criticizing Tesla and ending with the rhetorical question How can anyone buy Tesla.
That means there were at least four other people helping the protestor. More than a single woman fighting for her consumer rights it suggests it was a coordinated plan to do PR damage.
It wasn’t Zhang’s first protest against Tesla as she already presented her objections against Elon Musk’s company on the roof of her crashed car in front of Tesla Store Shanghai a month ago. It is unbelievable carelessness of the Tesla team as they didn’t pay attention to this warning and didn’t resolve the issue.
Eastmoney media also pointed out, that an owner of Tesla Model X protesting at the Shanghai Auto Show against Tesla four years ago was volunteering for Nio at their booth today. Nio immediately to accusations made a statement they have nothing to do with these protests. It surprised me they feel they need to react to such rumors with such a cadence. Also Zhang and her Nio driver made Weibo statements that everything was done without Nio’s support.
Nio has most probably nothing to do with it, but what raises doubts is how well was protest coordinated and how loudly Zhang, other participants, and Nio react to unclarities. For Tesla, the damage was done, but they will survive this affair. After all, China doesn’t want Tesla out as it is still needed for the growth of its EV ecosystem, but they want them to sweat. Tesla should take the lesson and start taking its PR seriously, this nightmare didn’t come of a sudden but was building long over time and under the radar of its executives.