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Tina Casey headshot

Elon Musk, Brand Reputation and the Difference Between Goodwill and a Publicity Stunt

Whenever there is a crisis, there is sure to be a tweet from Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, sometimes insulting, sometimes grandstanding, and always guaranteeing free publicity. His move on Ukraine, however, looks like it will require some damage control.
By Tina Casey
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk

Scores of leading global businesses have publicly unified in a history-making effort to provide aid to Ukraine and exert economic pressure on Russia. In almost every case, the reputational impact is clear, uncluttered and laudable. The exceptions, few as they are, illustrate how good intentions can easily backfire, with potentially tragic consequences. Corporate leaders need to think before they act in a time of crisis, as millions of lives are at stake.

Grabbing the spotlight in times of crisis

From BP and Shell to Visa and Mastercard, scores of leading corporations have publicly dropped ties with Russia. Innumerable others have offered cash donations, supplies and other forms of aid. The effort has united the global business community as never before.

In most instances, publicity for the actions has been swift and concise, consisting mainly of a press release concurrent with social media announcements. That makes it difficult to stand out in a crowd. However, any high-profile CEO with a knack for social can easily find a way to rise above the herd.

True to form, Elon Musk has done just that. Whenever there is a crisis, there is sure to be a series of tweets from the Tesla and SpaceX CEO, sometimes insulting, sometimes grandstanding, and always guaranteeing free publicity. All three have been on display as Russia continues its homicidal rampage through Ukraine.

Elon Musk is not the only high-profile CEO on the planet. However, his near-rockstar status and his 76 million Twitter followers provide him with a uniquely powerful amplifier.

How the COVID-19 crisis set the stage

Musk’s ability to fire off attention-grabbing tweets and other communications during times of crisis was on full display in the spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic first unfolded in March.

GM and other automakers responded to the crisis by converting their operations to manufacture ventilators and other supplies. Elon Musk publicly promised to donate ventilators directly to hospitals. His ventilators never materialized, though other, less expensive devices did.

Later that spring, Telsa ostensibly joined with GM, Ford and other manufacturing leaders to collaborate with the White House on a plan for restarting operations that had been suspended during coronavirus lockdown. The coordinated effort was supposed to showcase the ability of U.S. manufacturers to work together, create safe workplaces, and rebound from the global crisis.

A joint restart date was set for May 18. However, in the weeks leading up to the big event, Elon Musk launched a series of public attacks on the lockdown, garnering reams of free publicity along the way. Ultimately he recalled his employees to work days before the agreed-upon restart date, with the gleeful support of former President Donald Trump himself.

The NATO factor

Though Musk has insisted that he eschews politics, he also regularly deployed his Twitter account in the service of former President Trump’s misdirection on COVID-19.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, Trump persistently undermined expert efforts to advise the public on COVID-19 safety. Musk also minimized the danger in a series of tweets through the 2020 election cycle. To the extent Trump’s re-election strategy depended on downplaying the pandemic, Elon Musk played a role in that effort.

Musk continued to undermine a science-based response to the crisis after President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, by questioning vaccine safety on Twitter. Over the summer of 2021, Musk also began to lash out at President Biden on a more personal level after the Biden administration left Tesla out of a White House event showcasing other U.S. automakers.

The criticism carried over into January of this year, even as the Biden administration continued working to repair the damage done to NATO by Trump and his allies, while Russia intensified its military buildup around Ukraine. 

Whether through ignorance or intent, Musk’s Twitter account was an echo of Trump’s NATO-weakening efforts. Both Canada and the U.S. are founding members of NATO, yet Musk publicly cheered the "trucker" convoy in Canada from the beginning and targeted Canadian President Justin Trudeau for criticism, even though the drivers virtually paralyzed the capital of Canada for weeks and blocked key crossings between Canada and the U.S.

At the end of January, Musk also lobbed another personal insult at President Biden, apparently miffed at another perceived White House snub.

For Elon Musk, a good publicity stunt gone bad

Having publicly insulted two NATO leaders and encouraged hundreds of ordinary citizens to disrupt Canadian-U.S. commerce as Europe hovered on the brink of war, Elon Musk finally went into damage control mode after Russia pulled the trigger and invaded Ukraine. He publicly announced that he would enable Ukrainian forces to communicate through his Starlink satellite internet service, and would donate the necessary equipment. 

The donation was apparently a direct response to a series of public pleas from Ukraine’s vice prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, who asked a number of other tech companies to send aid as well. 

As it turns out, the usefulness of the Starlink equipment is in serious doubt. Shortly shortly after Musk announced the donation, a security expert at the University of Toronto, John Scott-Railton, tweeted out a warning of the potential danger to Starlink users in Ukraine.

Reporter Jackie Wattles of CNN Business also interviewed University of California security researcher Nicholas Weaver last week, who noted a similar danger. "Starlink may work for the moment, but anyone setting a [Starlink] dish up in Ukraine needs to consider it as a potential giant target," he warned. 

When Wattles spoke with Scott-Railton, he advised that Starlink is a new technology that has never been vetted for safety in conflict zones “Using satellite technology in conflict zones has — time and again — been an underestimated risk,” he warned.

Wattles also noted that Musk publicly admitted Starlink could put its users at risk. “Shortly after this story was originally published, Musk also weighed in on Twitter, saying ‘Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so probability of being targeted is high. Please use with caution,’” she reported.

Vox reporter Sara Morrison also observed that the equipment donated to Ukraine is an older iteration of the technology that was used during a yearlong beta test. Either the company did not have a supply of new equipment at hand to donate, or Ukraine provided a convenient way to get free publicity while clearing old stock off the shelves.

As of last Friday, there was no clarity on what use, if any, Ukraine would be able to make of Starlink during the conflict.

Damage control

Unless something changes, the Starlink donation will join Musk’s list of publicity-friendly promises that fall short in a time of crisis. That includes the unusable mini-submarine Musk offered for a cave rescue plan in 2018, as well as the supposed ventilator donation in 2020.

The time for publicity stunts is long past. Musk was certainly not the only entrepreneur to tolerate Trump’s anti-NATO activities, but he was among the few to deploy Twitter to support Trump’s COVID-19 misdirection during the 2020 election cycle.

Tacit or not, the support of Musk and other business leaders for the Trump presidency casts a giant shadow now that Russia has invaded Ukraine. As president, Trump made no secret of his disdain for NATO, and in 2018 he admitted threatening to pull the U.S. out of the longstanding alliance.

Against that backdrop, Russia’s unprovoked strike against Ukraine has come into focus as a plan contingent on a weakened NATO — fractured and incapable of lending any meaningful aid to Ukraine, enabling Russia forces to overrun the country within a day, claim its resources, and gain an outpost from which to threaten the rest of the continent.

Russia went through with the plan even after Trump lost his bid for re-election, apparently on the assumption that President Biden would not be able to re-establish NATO as a counterbalance.

Russia made a bad miscalculation, as proved by the courage of the people of Ukraine, the resolve of NATO and the international community, and the support of other business leaders who have voluntarily exercised their own economic pressure on the Russian government. If Elon Musk really wants to help, he can stop tweeting and starting lending a hand.

Image credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey