The Fearey Group PR Failure #10: Elon Musk’s No Good Very Bad Year – Keeps Getting Worse

Aaron Blank / October 1, 2018

 

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Another Month, Another Blunder.
September’s come and gone and everyone’s got fall on the mind… and we at The Fearey Group do, too. But the kind of “fall” we’re thinking about doesn’t include a change in the weather. It’s something we might encounter any day of the year: failure. Failing is inevitable and a crucial part of life that helps us reflect, learn from the experience (no matter how terrible), and become better as a result. Each month, we discuss a prominent PR failure in the industry and the lessons learned. Because, as we work to grow, we understand hindsight is always 20/20.
You can read about August’s blunder here.
This month, we’re diving into Silicon Valley and exploring the mishaps of one of the biggest leaders and visionaries in the tech world — Elon Musk, entrepreneur and Co-Founder and CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink.
The Story:
Elon Musk has had quite the year. From a slump in production for the highly anticipated Tesla Model 3 cars and steep loss in Tesla stock (more than half a billion dollars), to calling out one of the cave divers who helped rescue a group of boys in Thailand on Twitter, Musk has had his fair share of news coverage. And he’s taken to social media to talk about it.
While most tweets have been received with a grain of salt, a fateful tweet in early August threw some serious – aka legal – heat in Musk’s direction.
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Without giving any further details, all eyes were on the electric car company’s CEO. As Tesla stocks were reacting to the news in real time, so was the company. It caused a frenzy among shareholders and shined a light on Tesla; putting into question the future of Musk’s role within his own company. And as we should all know by now, what you post online can have consequences offline.
A lot can happen in 246 characters or less, and he’s now facing a lawsuit from one particular government agency. On September 27, news broke that the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is suing Musk for alleging securities fraud by announcing he plans to take the publicly traded Tesla private.
Musk responded to the lawsuit in an emailed statement to NPR stating, “This unjustified action by the SEC leaves me deeply saddened and disappointed. I have always taken action in the best interests of truth, transparency and investors.” The SEC is asking that Musk be banned from holding an executive position in any publicly traded company. Whoa.
The Mistake(s)
1. Ignoring that Your Actions are Reflected in Your Brand
CEOs are not just “figureheads.” They make decisions and implement change at the highest level. In a recent and bizarre interview with The New York Times, Musk detailed his hectic year and how he reached the point of threatening to take Tesla private. In a public display of frustration and stress, the interview put into question Musk’s mental health in his leadership roles, as he said he had been working up to 120 hours a week. Even friends were starting to worry about him.
The details unveiled through The New York Times article, coupled with Musk’s behavior online and off, bring to light the uneasiness many may feel of Musk’s abilities as a leader. As this year has proven, there continues to be a lot at stake. When you are regarded as the sole spokesperson for your company or brand, your message and vision has to be something your employees can enthusiastically get behind. Your employees, as the heart and soul of your company, are your biggest advocates after all. Not getting their support can cast a great deal of doubt on your credibility as a leader and the overall success and perception of your company.
2. Risking Your Company’s Reputation in a Single Tweet
Musk claimed the tweet about taking Tesla private was an attempt to be transparent. However, allegedly, many board members were blindsided by the news. Not having clear and open communication with the fellow leadership within your company can be disastrous in the long run. Publicly making a claim, in any form of communications, can cause a great deal of distress not only internally, but externally as well. When news broke from the single tweet, it was clear, from the stock market to the Internet, that everyone was speculating on just what Musk was going to do next. The result lead to an almost circus-like spectacle that undermined the true messaging and strategy. And ultimately, impacting the bottom line of the company. You spend years building your reputation so protect it.
3. Think Before You Take to the Virtual Streets of Social Media
Musk is known for his often brazen, ambitious nature and personality. And that might be why he hasn’t been ousted. Emily Stewart of Vox says that because Musk is who he is (a zany, albeit genius innovator), he may be getting a break. Because Musk lives and breathes his brands, investors believe that Musk is the future of innovation and therefore should be protected. But to get to the future in one piece, Musk should consider Public Relations 101 — think before you post. With the mentality — and in Musk’s case the reality — that the world is watching whatever you say or do, it is imperative to have a strategic approach to the words you say and the decisions you act on. Not doing so can have serious ramifications – like getting smacked with a lawsuit from the SEC.
The Lesson Learned:
There are many characteristics that make up a good leader. Integrity. Humility. A clear vision. Elon Musk is undoubtedly one of the brightest innovators of our generation, but the immense pressure of upholding the promises he’s made from his groundbreaking companies is clearly starting to take a toll. Whatever the process may be moving forward with the lawsuit, it’s obvious that Musk, as enigmatic as a figure as he is, needs to bring some clarity. Being able to define his vision with attainable goals and then communicating those goals throughout the company should help instill trust in Musk’s employees and help carve a more productive path for the future, together.
Tesla and SpaceX are known for their innovation and modernity, and we suspect they will for as long as they continue to break the barriers of what it is known to be possible. But for the longevity and health of Tesla and SpaceX, Musk must step up and think about what he wants the images and reputations to be and become not only the brains behind the innovation, but the face of it as well.
Until next month. Stay true to your word. Think before you speak (or tweet).
Aaron Blank
President & CEO, The Fearey Group
For more information about The Fearey Group, check us out online at www.feareygroup.com.
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Aaron Blank

CEO & President, Partner

Aaron has been engaged in the conversation since the late 1990s, where he discovered his love of media while working at local radio stations. After five years as a radio reporter, anchor, producer and promoter in New York and Connecticut, he and his wife, Lacey, ventured west to begin his career in PR. Soon he caught the attention of industry legend Pat Fearey and the rest is history. Two decades later, as CEO and owner of The Fearey Group, Aaron leads with tireless enthusiasm and contagious drive. In 2014, he became the next generation owner of the firm. He takes his breakfast at 4:30 AM and never eats lunch alone. You can find him working to connect the next business with tomorrow’s leader.

Personal philosophy: do something amazing every day and be fearless!