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Elon Musk's Painful Twitter Lesson: Image is Built on Words, Not Actions

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
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Whew. What a week. Elon Musk’s Twitter tirade last week in which he publicly lambasted coordinators of a rescue mission in Thailand for not accepting his aid in the rescue and called one diver “Pedo guy” seemed to capture a salient message of our times: That hot-collar moments and social media don’t mix – even if you think you are on solid ground. No matter the technical expertise or genius of the tweeter, it’s reputation (and stock profiles) that are often meted out when it comes to performance on today’s online podium.

Musk’s irritation stemmed from the fact that the dive team that was coordinating the long-awaited rescue of 12 Thai children from an underground cave wouldn't use his mini-submarine to bring the kids out. Being told that his submarine design “wouldn’t work” apparently irked Musk.

But it was being told by Vern Unsworth, an experienced cave diver, that the submarine was really just a "PR stunt" -- that was the culminating force that drove Musk to fire back. Even though he did delete his tweet later, his comments are now immortalized in Twitter recaps.

And yes, Unsworth is now considering legal action against Musk.

In a week that saw the President of the United States once again use hearsay to impugn the reputation of those who criticize him and by extension, elevate his own public credibility, Musk’s actions are a megaphone for what happens when one’s assumption about reputation is used to score a point.

The fallout from Musk’s actions were immediate. His company, Tesla Motors, saw its stock value shed $295 million in value. Shareholders expressed their alarm and the managing partner at Loup Ventures, Gene Munster, urged Musk to "consider taking a Twitter sabbatical."

“Your behavior is fueling an unhelpful perception of your leadership -- thin-skinned and short-tempered," Munster told Musk in an open letter, noting that while Musk's track record is "visionary and unprecedented, [the] exchange with Vern Unsworth crossed the line."

That isn't to say that being Musk, the brains behind one of the world's most successful private space transportation companies and the first (money-making) electric car company isn't tough. Musk has plenty of detractors who feels his legacy is built on tall tales and lofty aims. And he has many who are willing to fund his success.

So, on Wednesday, two days after the exchange, he took Munster's advice and made a public apology, stating that the "fault is mine and mine alone" for the heated exchange.

Unfortunately, the timing of his apology couldn’t have been worse: It dovetailed with another apology of sorts for what has now gone down in history as an egregious act: the President’s public address in Helsinki along side Russian President Vladamir Putin.

Would Musk's apology have been better heard if it hadn’t had to compete for air time with Trump’s own public crisis? It’s doubtful. The American public, weary of debates over truth and un-truths, researched facts and false news, seems to be losing patience with heartfelt apologies that fall just short of heartless mistakes.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to learn from Elon Musk's (temporary) fall from grace is that in today’s arena, thought leadership isn’t a 40-hour work week. Its credibility is cultivated as much by what’s seen online as at work, and the damage control from hurtful actions can be prohibitively expensive: especially for a multi-billionaire whose innovative success and dreams depend on whether people believe what he says.

Flickr image: JD Lasica

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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