Big personality CEOs: PR blessings and headaches – a case study of Elon Musk

October 31, 2018 • 3 minute read

At a media briefing event last year about media’s digital future, I sat as a journalist from Quartz explained how data analytics is playing an increasingly significant role in content creation. Editors now know the type and form of content that receive the greatest number of views and by harnessing this information a publication can boost its readership and in turn increase revenue.

In short, the journalist concluded, write about Elon Musk.

Indeed, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO generates interest and media coverage like few other people can. As Vox’s The Weeds podcast explained, Tesla is able to maintain an incredibly high profile with scarce advertising, marketing or communications resources thanks at least in part to Elon Musk.

In this sense, Musk is a blessing for Tesla and his personal brand is an asset to his businesses. Not only is he viewed as the successful entrepreneur behind innovative products and services, but he is seen by many as a visionary – as a business leader committed to creating a better future.

With Tesla, he is helping drive (no pun intended) the transition from petrol to electric vehicles, contributing to the reduction of fossil fuels and to the fight against climate change. Likewise, companies such as SpaceX and its subsidiary The Boring Company aim to revolutionise human transportation for the betterment of humanity. In leading businesses aiming to promote bold and positive change for humanity, Musk aims to shine a light on how businesses can help solve some of the world’s problems.

This same personality, however, is arguably one of his businesses’ biggest liabilities as well.

In recent months, Elon Musk has smoked cannabis live on air, has been sued for accusations against a British diver who helped in the Tham Luang cave rescue, and headbutted a car on the Tesla assembly line to protest plant safety features.

Musk has also had to settle a case with the SEC after he was accused of fraud following a spate of tweets declaring he had secured funding and was taking Tesla back into private ownership. In the resulting settlement Musk will have to pay a $20 million fine and step down as Tesla chairman for at least three years. His response to this has included removing his titles and becoming ‘The Nothing of Tesla’.

Musk’s erratic behaviour since the summer has made the headlines, but often not the sort that PR professionals are usually keen to see.

Whereas before his big personality arguably enhanced the reputations of his businesses and attracted both investors and consumers, questions are now being asked as to whether this is still the case.

Simply put, it is vital that the link between corporate and personal reputation is not forgotten. This was re-confirmed at our recent roundtable on Non-Executive Directors and corporate reputation, with boardrooms (and investors) ever more aware of the value that a CEO brand brings, and the value that can be lost in executive departures or when crises are poorly handled by senior spokespeople.

It is clear from Elon Musk, and others such as Michael O’Leary (Ryanair), Richard Branson (Virgin) and Steve Jobs (Apple) that having a CEO with a big personality can be a blessing more often than a curse for a business’ PR.

We shouldn’t gag such CEOs (even when facing difficult questions… step up Jeff Fairburn and Persimmon) but in an era of mass media and social media where transparency is expected and scrutiny is increasing, CEO’s and other business leaders must be acutely aware of the impact their own brand and reputation has on the businesses they serve.