WASHINGTON -- Tesla Motors Inc. CEO Elon Musk has stridently insisted that the recent spate of battery fires in Model S sedans is being blown out of proportion.
He may be right, but a good public relations strategy requires more than that. And last week, by chafing the regulators who will determine whether the Model S fires are a sign of a defect that must be fixed, Musk showed that young Tesla still has a lot to learn.
Under Musk's watch, Tesla has built an image as a company that breaks all the rules of the auto industry and yet beats all the loftiest of expectations. It has gotten out that message with the guns-a-blazin' PR operation led by the prickly Musk, who has personally challenged critics over Twitter and on the company's official blog.
The approach has proved effective when Musk has called out politicians determined to see electric cars fail, uninformed journalists and auto industry groupthink. But the freewheeling communication style does not sit so well with regulators.
That became clear last week, when Musk published a blog post saying Tesla had asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to "conduct a full investigation as soon as possible into the fire incidents."
That annoyed the agency's top brass, who wanted to make clear that they are the ones who make that decision, thank you very much. Hours after Musk's blog post went live, a NHTSA spokeswoman circulated a link to agency records showing the investigation had been launched on Friday -- four days earlier.
It seemed to contradict Musk's timeline. And a few hours later, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland chipped in his two cents, telling reporters he was "not aware" of the automaker having made such a request.
"In my time as administrator and my time as oversight counsel, I've never heard of an automaker formally requesting an investigation," Strickland said. It would be "unprecedented," he added and said, "I don't think this probably happened in this case."
That's where things got interesting.
Most auto executives would back down in such a situation, even if they knew they were right. A day's worth of bad press may be a pain, but it is nothing compared with what ticked-off government officials can do.
Musk, never one to follow such conventional wisdom, doubled down.
He then tweeted that on Nov. 15, his Washington-based vice president of regulatory affairs, Jim Chen, had "invited NHTSA senior staff to conduct a review of Model S." That left more questions than answers.
Reached on the phone by Automotive News on Tuesday, Chen deferred to a Tesla spokeswoman, who said she would provide a timeline of events to substantiate Musk's claims. By press time, after multiple follow-up inquiries, she had not done so.
It remains unclear how Tesla and NHTSA got their signals crossed. But it seems possible they were simply speaking different languages.
Bureaucrats such as Strickland have a lexicon of their own. In that lexicon, starting an "investigation" is not the same as gathering data. If it were, the investigation would have begun weeks ago, when NHTSA reached out to Tesla and first responders for data on the most recent Model S fire, in Smyrna, Tenn.
To Strickland, the term "investigation" is imbued with formal meaning. It is not spoken lightly. Asking the agency to start an investigation would have "lots of implications," he told reporters. "That means that that automaker has some notion, or level of belief, that they have a defect that poses an unreasonable risk to safety."
Let's set aside the question of whether Tesla asked for the investigation. Ultimately, that is not very important. What matters is why Musk -- facing the most serious PR challenge in his company's short lifetime -- has stuck to his belligerent communications style. It suggests that a new playbook may be in order.
Musk is a proud person and rightly so. His company is showing bright green shoots of success where so many past auto startups have failed -- for example, by getting the Model S a five-star rating on every government crash test.
But regulators have their pride, too. They make a point of staying above the fray and showing their integrity.
For Musk to try to show up NHTSA, at a time when the fate of the Model S rests in the agency's hands, is a dangerous way to defy convention.
No car company is on top forever. Everyone goes through a rough patch, and now may be the time when regulators and rival executives have a chance to kick Tesla when it is down.
If Musk is not careful, they may do so with relish.