This story is part of a collaboration with Rocky Mountain Community Radio focusing on the transition away from fossil fuels across the Mountain West.
Chief Marshal Mike Reilly of the Crested Butte Marshal’s office understands the limitations of social media.
“Social media… I try not to argue with my dog or the internet,” he said.
But for this small-town police chief, there is no public relations team, so posting updates to Facebook is a regular part of the job. On Aug. 12 last year, he posted a photo of the department’s newest vehicle.
“As far as we know,” Reilly proudly wrote, “This is the first Tesla Model X in service.”
But not everyone on Facebook that day was impressed.
“TIME OUT!,” wrote one person. “You idiots spent money on a Tesla?” “How much did that set me back in my property taxes?” asked another.
Others made fun of the futuristic falcon doors that open vertically instead of outward. Still more questioned the practicality of a police cruiser with limited battery life.
There were some that supported the purchase, but the overall attitude was that the Tesla Model X was unreasonable. Cartie Werthman co-authored a study that looked at the impact public relations firms had on climate change politics.
“That’s just something that wealthy people in San Francisco do. And that’s completely out of touch with reality,” she said.
Werthman’s study found that industries like electric utilities, like oil, coal, steel and rail, pay millions for public relations, while environmental advocates and renewable energy pay comparatively very little for PR.
She’s heard those arguments before in messaging paid for by the oil and gas industry.
“So, especially the American Petroleum Institute has hired PR firms out the wazoo,” Werthman said. “And we’ve seen that with pretty much every climate, anything that would reduce our emissions in the United States. Like any sort of policy, they’re usually fighting against that.”
For example, as part of their settlement over the diesel emissions scandal, Volkswagen spent $2 billion to fund electric vehicle infrastructure plans across the country, including two public charging stations in Crested Butte.
“And at every turn, API and APFM, American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers, has come in and lobbied against them,” Werthman said. “And they’ve made oftentimes the same arguments that you’d see on this local level of, ‘Oh, it’s just rich people trying to buy these nice, fancy Teslas.'”
Thinking back to the public reaction in Crested Butte, there is no evidence that oil and gas PR firms had a hand in stirring the debate. These people had their own agendas.
That was also true with the local housing crisis–officially declared by the Town Council only a few weeks before the arrival of the new car. Workers were fleeing the county for a place to live or opted for the woods. Businesses cut back or closed altogether.
It was also the summer after the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide conversations on police reform. Phrases like “Defund the Police” had fully entered the American lexicon, and the Crested Butte Marshals had even recently changed their uniforms from black to blue as part of that movement.
These were the issues that people were talking about that day. But both of those narratives depend on the narrative of a Tesla as a decidedly impractical and elitist vehicle. That’s something the company’s real public image, and that of its celebrity billionaire founder Elon Musk, maybe doesn’t help. But the narrative has been around far longer than Musk’s celebrity or his car.
Marshal Joseph Dukeman is one of the officers with a new cruiser, and he loves talking about it.
“I think as far as the town goes, I think it’s a good transition where maybe I was skeptical at first. Since driving them, how efficient, this thing gets 375 miles, you know, I think that that’s what people were kind of concerned about. Is it going to last that long? How well is it going to be in the snow?” Dukeman said. “I mean, this thing is seeing some service just because you know, cars have things that go wrong with them over time. Yeah. But you know, you don’t have to have the oil changes. You don’t have to have any of those types of services done that we see the other cars having to go through, you know, several times throughout the year.”
This is actually the third electric vehicle the marshals own. They also have two electric motorcycles, and there’s a new Tesla on order–that’s how much they like it. Chief Reilly said that, like with most departments, he wanted to be sure that his marshals drove American-made cars, a notion that certainly counteracts some of the arguments about Tesla being out of touch with the American public.
As the department adds new Teslas to their fleet, Reilly will likely remain the department defacto PR team. If the social media backlash returns, he’ll probably do what he did last time.
“Which is, in my estimation, the best response to anything off of social media or the internet,” he said.
Time will tell if that’s enough to help change a very old, very powerful, very expensive narrative.