It’s pretty extraordinary that a Twitter meltdown has wiped $2 billion off a company’s shares.
But that’s what happened to Tesla this week after CEO Elon Musk launched a terribly misguided Twitter rant at one of the divers who took part in last week’s Thai cave rescue.
Not only did his actions cost his shareholders dearly but the offensive posts also created a huge amount of negative media and social media coverage.
And there still remains a threat of legal action.
Mr Musk took offence after one of the divers, Vern Unsworth, had described his attempt to get involved in the Thailand rescue as a ‘publicity stunt’ and told him to stick the mini-submarine he had designed ‘where it hurts’
Displaying an incredibly thin skin and lack of judgement, Mr Musk appeared to label the diver a ‘pedo’ seemingly on the basis that he lives in Thailand and, when challenged, doubled down on the comment by telling his 22m followers “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”
Here are some of the resulting headlines:
Tesla stock plummets after Elon Musk’s Twitter rant Daily Mail
Tesla shares fall after CEO Musk abuses British caver Reuters
Elon Musk’s latest outburst raises doubts on leadership The Express Tribune
I know Elon Musk does good, but he’s still a bonehead The Guardian
So what are the lessons from this dive into a self-inflicted PR crisis?
Posts can never truly be deleted
One of the things that we stress on our social media training courses is that damaging posts can never really be deleted.
Of course, you can take them down, but by the time that decision has been taken you can be sure plenty of screenshots have been captured and shared.
And those screenshots quickly gain a momentum of their own, subjecting the poster to trial by social media and adverse media coverage.
In which Elon Musk calls the lead diver from the Thai rescue a paedo because he dared criticise him... pic.twitter.com/yURXPO3V5o— Dan Knapp (@sirknapp) July 15, 2018
Elon Musk called the British diver who saved the Thai boys a “paedo” cause he did not his submarine pic.twitter.com/OcbOzGrk4u— Polyglot (@lkigai_) July 15, 2018
Musk clearly does not take criticism well – this is not his first Twitter disaster after all – but he also ignored one of the golden rules of social media crisis management.
It took him an age to apologise and he only did so this morning (18/7) after investors began to demand that he say sorry.
Perhaps his legal team have advised him not to say anything further. But the prolonged silence between the offensive tweets and the apology only caused further damage.
When the apology did come it took the form of a tweet to someone who had shared an article claiming to give the 'full story' behind Mr Musk's involvement in the cave rescue. And even then it still attempted to blame Mr Unsworth for ‘several untruths’.
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
Nonetheless, his actions against me do not justify my actions against him, and for that I apologize to Mr. Unsworth and to the companies I represent as leader. The fault is mine and mine alone.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 18, 2018
Organisations and leaders caught out in this type of situation need to apologise quickly, and that apology needs to sound sincere.
Managing a crisis, particularly a self-inflicted one, is never easy. As difficult as it may seem you need to be visible, show you understand and regret what has happened, and reassure people that it will not happen again.
Taking things offline is an art
One of the key lessons from this debacle is that sometimes it is better for brands and their spokespeople not to respond to criticism online.
Of course, that approach demands a relatively thick skin, but it is a far better approach than getting involved in a social media slanging match which never ends well.
Did Mr Musk really need to respond to the ‘pr stunt’ jibe?
Sometimes silence can be golden and taking issues offline can be a very wise social media approach.
Many of us have made comments we later regret when something bad has happened or we have been criticised. Telling a group of friends in the pub or on the phone is fine.
But letting off steam by putting those thoughts on social media, either in the form of a post or a video for a website, makes those views public and exposes you to scrutiny – particularly if you have a senior job or work for a high profile organisation.
And if people take offence and it goes viral you are in serious trouble.
The lesson here is that in terms of your social media presence you are never truly off duty – never off the record.
There are many reasons why a CEO should be on Twitter and other social media channels.
It can raise the profile of the brand, help to position them as a thought leader and sector expert and it can be a great way of them displaying visible leadership during a crisis media management incident.
But it is not without its pitfalls.
Just as there are many examples of CEOs causing brand reputation issues through off-the-cuff comments in speeches and media interviews, there are also examples of them generating negative coverage and causing crises through their social media activity.
Who can forget Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary landing himself in a sexism row after responding to a customer’s tweet with ‘Nice pic. Phwoaaarr!’? Or fashion designer Kenneth Cole finding himself in a Twitter storm after posting that the unrest in Cairo in 2011 had been triggered by the launch of his spring collection.
And, as Mr Musk has shown, social media might not be for them if they don’t have a thick skin.
Finally, if your social media posts are regularly resulting in bad publicity, it is probably time to invest in some social media training or close your accounts. Time will tell what approach Mr Musk takes.
Some advice for @elonmusk’s PR team:— Tommy Vietor (@TVietor08) July 15, 2018
- Draft an apology statement now
- Compile a list of key validators
- Duct tape him to a chair until you’ve destroyed all his internet-connected devices
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.