Isn’t it always the way that when you hold somebody up as a paragon of virtue they go and prove you horribly wrong? Well, at least that appears to be what’s happened recently with Elon Musk, who I previously lauded for his mastery of Twitter as a medium for self-promotion and reputation building.
The Tesla founder and chief executive has always used Twitter in a reasonably free and easy manner. He seemingly understood the platform’s quickfire and ephemeral nature is tailor-made for snackable quotes and the occasional jokey aside. Musk has mostly used this to his advantage, garnering a massive following (22.3 million) and plenty of kudos for his Twitter output.
However, all this changed in the space of one or two recent tweets. That’s the eternal lesson with social media: it only takes one terrible tweet to undo 5000 good ones. You’re only as good as your last digital utterance. In the age of social media, your reputation rests on what you post.
In a previous SmartCompany piece, I discussed Musk’s intervention in the South Australian energy debate and his offer to help the SA government.
I wrote: “Elon Musk is one of the highest profile people in the world. His personal branding and marketing is up there with the likes of Richard Branson. However, that doesn’t mean you and your business can’t take a leaf from his book and use social media as a way to showcase all that is good about your business, especially when it comes to playing the hero.”
However, when Musk tweeted a vile allegation about one of the men involved in the rescue of the Thai soccer team and their coach from a cave, he quickly went from hero to villain. With one tweet, he dug himself into a dark, dank Twitter abyss.
Musk had offered his help to the rescue team in the form of a mini-submarine that might have been driven into the cave to retrieve the boys. As it turns out, the rescue team did not think the sub would be helpful in this scenario. Musk then got into a spat with one of the rescuers, British diver Vernon Unsworth, who had accused Musk of trying to milk the rescue drama for his own glory.
Things got ugly when Musk called Unsworth “pedo guy” in a tweet. A tweet he soon deleted. In the aftermath Musk apologised, citing anger as a motivating factor for his error.
He tweeted: “I apologise to Mr. Unsworth and to the companies I represent as leader. The fault is mine and mine alone.
“My words were spoken in anger after Mr. Unsworth said several untruths and suggested I engage in a sexual act with the mini-sub”.
As this well-written article suggests, my words were spoken in anger after Mr. Unsworth said several untruths & suggested I engage in a sexual act with the mini-sub, which had been built as an act of kindness & according to specifications from the dive team leader.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 18, 2018
It was not one of Musk’s finer moments.
While he has tried to rectify the situation with an apology, it’s not washing with many people, especially those who hold sceptical views about Musk’s capacity to deliver on his many projects involving Tesla, SpaceX, and the Boring Company.
Many have become cynical about Musk recently, as Tesla has encountered numerous issues with production and earnings. Musk is a tall poppy plenty of people would like to see lopped. Muddying PR waters with episodes like this will not help his public persona nor will it play well with analysts and investors. One tweet will not unmake everything Musk has achieved, but it has undoubtedly damaged one of the major things Musk has going for him: a positive and admired public persona.
So it seems we can take another lesson from Musk this time around: thou shalt not tweet in anger.
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