The billionaire chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX recently apologized after facing severe backlash for his comments after rescuers saved 12 Thai boys and their coach from a flooded cave system.
Musk had attempted to insert himself into the global drama by offering a miniature submarine his engineers had designed to rescue the boys. When cave diving experts were skeptical and unreceptive, Musk retaliated.
Musk turned to Twitter and snapped at British cave diver Vern Unsworth for his remarks about Musk during an interview with a reporter.
Mr Unsworth had said the mini-sub would have had "absolutely nochance of working" - and suggested Mr Musk could "stick his submarine where it hurts".
The entrepreneur fired back with a tweet where, without using Mr Unsworth's name, he referred to a "British expat guy who lives in Thailand".
He said he would make a video showing the mini-sub making it deep inside the cave "no problemo", adding, "Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it."
The tweet, sent to his more than 22 million followers, was later deleted.
Unsworth has told reporters he is considering legal action against Musk.
On Wednesday, Musk apologized on Twitter:
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
However, many social media users and reporters are criticizing the apology.
NBC News reported:
Elon Musk made a qualified apology Wednesday for calling one of the rescuers of a youth soccer team from a Thai cave a “pedo”—but the Tesla CEO still managed to take a swipe at the media.
Some pointed to Musk’s recent history of outbursts online, and others criticized the apology for coming only after investors told him to do so.
The comment about the caver was far from the first Twitter outburst for Musk, who is fond of talking about tweeting on Ambien. He has repeatedly lashed out at journalists amid critical coverage of Tesla, which has missed Model 3 production goals, lost top executives, and clashed with government investigators. He even teased plans to launch a service called Pravda to rate the credibility of specific journalists and news outlets.
His erratic behavior extends beyond his penchant for ranting in 280 characters. During a recent earnings call, he interrupted analysts who asked about capital expenditures and production of Tesla's first mass market car, the Model 3. "Boring, bonehead questions are not cool," Musk told one analyst.
Gene Munster, a managing partner at Loup Ventures, wrote Musk an open letter on behalf of investors. It read, in part:
Over the last 6 months, there have been too many examples of concerning behavior that is shaking investor confidence. In our view, your outburst at analysts on the March 2018 earnings call, your ongoing frustration with short sellers and the media, your June email exchange with the saboteur, and your confrontation on Twitter with cave diver Vern Unsworth each raised flags with investors.
The exchange with Vern Unsworth crossed the line. I suspect you would agree given you deleted the string from Twitter, but it will take more than that to regain investor confidence.
Your behavior is fueling an unhelpful perception of your leadership – thin-skinned and short-tempered.
Thankfully, the road to regaining investor confidence is well traveled. It starts with an apology. Then, focus your message on your progress toward achieving Tesla’s mission. You might consider taking a Twitter sabbatical. Twitter might keep Tesla in the news but it won’t help continued improvements in production and product.
Also, ignore the short sellers. During my time as an analyst I have observed that when companies aggressively engage with short sellers, they lose. The best way to beat them is not with words, but actions that drive the stock higher.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg’s Tom Randall, Musk admitted that he should “probably say nothing [on Twitter] more often:
… So the question is: If somebody attacks you on Twitter, should you say nothing? Probably the answer in some cases is yes, I should say nothing. In fact, most of the time I do say nothing. I should probably say nothing more often.
I have made the mistaken assumption—and I will attempt to be better at this—of thinking that because somebody is on Twitter and is attacking me that it is open season. And that is my mistake. I will correct it.
However, Musk hasn’t shown a penchant for keeping his mouth closed when critics attack him online. Some have suggested a better PR team or agency could help Musk avoid future controversy.
[Musk] may yet correct it. And perhaps his failing this week will encourage him to redouble his efforts. Personally, I hope he hires someone to run better PR for him. Instead of the fact-checking service he proposed last month, perhaps he just needs a contractor to deconstruct stories about him and his companies on his behalf.
(While I see why Musk often responds himself, I think some remove would be advantageous for him. Not only would it add a layer of objectivity, it would allow the other to highlight Musk’s positives in ways he could never do himself with any propriety. For example, did you know that he made two separate commitments to help the people of Flint while this other narrative was going on? Or that he donated a batch of RadioFlyer Teslas to children’s hospitals across Europe? I’m guessing you didn’t, and I’m guessing I know why.)
However, a PR team’s efforts will only work if the leader follows the advice and instructions. Founder and former chief executive of Papa John’s resigned recently as chairman of the board after reports surfaced that he used a racial slur during a PR meeting to avoid future crises.
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