Elon Musk
Elon Musk

Few corporate executives have had the limelight focused on them as intensely as Elon Musk. From SpaceX to his acquisition of Twitter to the gathering storm around his flagship brand Tesla, the amount of digital ink spilled on Musk would fill the Indian Ocean.

And few people have met the media attention with less savvy and finesse than Musk, who wears his feelings on his sleeve and has a glass jaw when it comes to counter punches for the stuff he dishes.

Musk biographer Walter Isaacson has tried to explain his subject’s behavior, which he calls “mercurial,” but does so mostly in terms of extremes of light versus darkness.

Musk is a brilliant engineer but has trouble empathizing with people and sees himself as an epic character almost like a cartoon superhero. “He also just so craves excitement, drama and risk that whenever things are going well, he can’t leave well enough alone or savor it,” Isaacson told Andrew Ross Sorkin in a New York Times interview. “He’s got to push all of his chips back on the table, which means you can either go into orbit or you can melt down.”

Let us pretend for a moment that you have received a call from one of Musk’s few remaining top lieutenants to see if you would be interested in advising him on PR matters. What would you do? What would you recommend? As President Lyndon Baines Johnson used to say in his favorite biblical appeal, ”let us reason together.”

First, stop with the head fakes, such as talking about the Robotaxi (which CNBC’s Jim Cramer called “a ruse”), or how Tesla is really a software company and not a car company. The car business is what brought you to the dance and represents a massive worldwide investment, so focus on making and selling cars, not Robotaxi.

Second, stop the personnel bleed. Tesla has fired a small city of employees, and several senior others have jumped ship. It is not a good look for you to fire a guy who slept in his car and showered at the plant to be more productive while a senior executive dumps his Tesla stock for $181M the day after he leaves the company. Nor is cancelling student internships at the last minute. It looks like desperation, not strategy.

Third, find a way to do some good that will put both you and your companies in a better light. You have a charitable foundation that was founded nearly two dozen years ago and in 2021 became one of the largest foundations in the world, thanks to your $5.7 billion infusion of Tesla stock, but what has it done? What innovative programs has it funded? How many children have become physicians or physicists because of it? Ivy Lee once advised John D. Rockefeller to give dimes to children on the street. Musk needs a similar retail schtick.

Elon Musk is without question smart enough to turn around both his sliding company and the PR problems that accompanying nearly everything he says or does, but the question is will he do it? Will he get help with messaging and strategy or continue to try to wing it because of his brilliance? Time will tell, and in this case, time doesn’t heal all wounds.


Bill Huey is president of Strategic Communications and the author of "Advertising's Double Helix: A Proposed New Process Model," Journal of Advertising Research, May/June 1999. His article about advertising effects has been cited in books and academic papers around the world.