“I wonder what his PR person is going thru right now.”

I bet you’re like me – when you hear about some CEO’s crazy antics, you’re overcome with empathy, thinking: “I wonder what his PR person is going through right now.”

Trigger warning: This post considers the experience of being Elon Musk’s PR person.

I’m not making a value judgement about him. You can think what you want about him as a business leader and human being.

Instead I’m acknowledging how the mere thought of working for someone with his lack of message discipline sends any self-respecting PR pro into cold sweats and stomach spasms.

I’ve been reading the new biography by Walter Isaacson. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

  • Remember back when Musk injected himself into the Thai cave rescue operation? And after one of the actual rescuers told media that they didn’t use any of Musk’s tools for the rescue, Elon called him a “pedo guy” in a tweet? Tesla stock dropped 3.5 percent overnight.
  • A month later, Musk tweeted, “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420 [per share]. Funding secured.” They had not, in fact, secured funding. And Elon picked the price-per-share because it’s a marijuana reference. Not to mention, such a public statement by a CEO is a major SEC violation.
  • A NYT biz writer got Elon on the phone late one night. He then wrote how Elon alternated between laughter and tears throughout the interview. Other outlets ran with the story, with headlines like: “Erratic NYT Interview Raises Alarm on Tesla Chief’s Health.” Tesla stock dropped 9 percent.

To push back on this narrative, his PR consultant, Juleanna Glover, prescribed a long-form interview to clear the air. A forum where Elon could be himself and not taken out of context. In her briefing document for Musk, she wrote:

“In no universe is it okay for you to continue to contemplate the sexual predilections of a Thai diver who insulted you.”

Yes – that’s a real thing. You thought you had to hold your executive’s hand!

You have probably guessed where this anecdote is leading. Elon succeeded in never mentioning the Thai diver during his infamous 2.5-hour interview with mega-podcaster Joe Rogan. Instead, he chose to smoke a joint live on the air, EVEN AFTER Rogan said, “You probably can’t because of shareholders, right?”

Okay, that’s a fascinating but extreme example to illustrate one point for you:

In no universe is it okay for you to do PR for a person or organization that acts like this.

It’s one thing if their cause is controversial or they have owned up to mistakes. If you believe in them, it’s honorable to fight through the adversity together.

But if someone repeatedly rejects your counsel, drop them and find someone who sees you as the expert you are.

If you are now feeling lucky that you are not in this position, then your next step is to save six months’ living expenses. That will be your “freedom fund” in the event your luck changes, so you can quit and have a runway to find a new gig.

This article was originally published on November 2, 2023

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