Elon Musk tweet storm shows the need to balance authenticity with authority

Authenticity is a fundamental element of communications.

Say something you don’t mean or can’t back up with proof and you will soon be caught out.

I recently assessed Chartered Practitioner candidates for the CIPR on leadership, discussing the need to support leaders of business in our roles as PR consultants.

The subject coursework cited an article in Influence magazine discussing leadership. One CEO said: “I need you to trust that I can speak for myself and can be trusted in what I say to a journalist.”

And that is fundamentally true.

While CEOs have to focus on the day job, growing businesses and increasing profits while satisfying shareholders, staff, customers and the greater good, communicating directly via social media channels now helps them to stay in touch, to appear human and to see what their stakeholders are saying.

Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk has significantly upped his Twitter usage in recent months and has more than 22m followers, no doubt entertained by his rambunctious tone.

Sometimes nicknamed the real-life Iron Man because of his love for innovative technology, Musk also seems to have a thin skin if anyone criticises him or his companies.

When the New York Times reviewed the Tesla Model S and gave it a bad write-up a few years ago, Musk posted a response to each point on his website.

Earlier this year, Musk called out the media after criticism over his Tesla brand and suggested that trust in media is at an all-time low and that he was considering starting a site where their credibility could be scored by the general public.

Musk is not averse to criticising his rivals, either, taking aim at Ford recently in an attempt to showcase his own company’s expertise.

When a driver died during a test-drive of the autopilot feature on one of his cars, Musk went on the defensive, using statistics and stating his strong views where sympathy for the deceased driver would have been far more appropriate.

When the Thai youngsters were trapped in a cave earlier this summer, Musk offered to help, which was very decent of him.

He seemed to get frustrated that his mini-submarine might not be viable, regardless of the practicalities and the knowledge of those on the ground who understood the terrain better than he may have done from far away.

Vernon Unsworth, a British man who lives in Thailand, convinced the Thai and British governments to send three of the world’s best cave divers to the rescue scene.

In a CNN interview, Unsworth called the mini-sub proposal a “PR stunt” that had “absolutely no chance of working,” and said Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”

Those final comments may have been unnecessary, but Musk took instant offence and referred to Unsworth as a “pedo guy” with no basis for making such a derogatory accusation.

Unsurprisingly, Unsworth has since suggested that he will sue Musk for his unfounded comments.

Musk later deleted the tweets and has damaged his own reputation by lowering himself to abusing his critics rather than focusing on the positives of the vision and innovation he promotes through his companies.

The impression Musk gives is of someone who not only takes offence easily, reacting badly to criticism despite his tremendous success, but of a man who appears comfortable attacking others despite the subsequent consequences when his followers go after them.

It’s a lesson for other CEOs and C-suite executives who may also crave thousands or millions of followers in order to create their own brand.

Inappropriate or mis-guided tweets can have a huge impact on reputation, on share price and on future business success.

And while authenticity is to be valued, sense-checking tweets with a communications expert or trusted colleague can be beneficial for those who want to be sure that their posts or tweets are not going to do more harm than good.

Taking suitable communications precautions can prevent the need for crisis management later down the line.

Rather than taking offence so quickly, Musk would be better served promoting his innovative projects, showcasing the expertise and technology he is seeking to create and inspiring others to push the boundaries of science and technology themselves.

He could go down in history as the man who helped make change happen, through electric car technology or space travel.

But if he carries on attacking those who disagree or criticise him, his legacy may be somewhat different.

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Image courtesy of flickr user OnInnovation

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David Alexander is a former national and international journalist now running an independent PR consultancy specialising in sport.

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