Timeline of a crisis: Tesla and the most expensive tweet ever

Social media outbursts from Tesla CEO Elon Musk have cost the company in terms of fines, market value, and executive Twitter privileges.

Photo credit: Getty images

September 29
The Securities and Exchange Commission reaches a settlement with Tesla and CEO Elon Musk in which they both agree to pay $20 million, capping a tumultuous summer for Musk. He agrees to step down as chairman of Tesla’s board, and a company lawyer will have to sign off on his work-related tweets.

September 20
Liam O’Connor, VP of global supply management, resigns, according to Bloomberg. He’s the fifth executive to leave the company in a few weeks.

September 7
Tesla’s HR chief and chief accounting officer resign.

September 6
Musk appears on the Joe Rogan Podcast, where he appears to smoke a marijuana cigarette and drink whiskey with its eponymous host.

September 4
BuzzFeed reports on emails from Musk, in which the CEO repeats claims that Vern Unsworth, a British diver that helped to rescue 12 Thai soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave, is a pedophile. Musk slimes Unsworth as a "child rapist" who moved to Southeast Asia to marry a minor. Previously, Musk lashed out at Unsworth because the diver criticized Musk’s attempts to assist the rescue effort with a mini-sub, calling it a "PR stunt." Musk prefaces one email by saying it is off the record, but BuzzFeed never agrees.

August 29
Unsworth retains attorney Lin Wood, who sends a letter to Musk saying he’s preparing a libel lawsuit.

August 28
The New York Times publishes a story portraying a hectic, chaotic life for Musk. That same day, he repeats his pedophilia slur of Unsworth in a tweet.

August 27
Sarah O’Brien, comms lead at Tesla, exits the company. Her departure had been planned for months.

August 24
Musk and Tesla agree it’s best for the company to stay public. They announce the news after the market closes. Previously, Musk tweets that he had secured financing to take Tesla private.

August 22
A special committee formed to evaluate Musk’s proposal to take Tesla private has hired Joele Frank for communications support, PRWeek reports.

August 17
Musk chats for an interview with YouTuber Marques Brownlee on a tour of Tesla Factory in Fremont, California.

August 16
The Times publishes its interview with an emotional Musk, who laments the wreckage of his personal life and health. He says no one else saw or vetted his fateful tweet to take Tesla private. The newspaper reports that Tesla executives have been trying to find a second-in-command for years.

August 15
The SEC serves Tesla with a subpoena over Musk’s tweet.

August 14
Tesla’s board forms a special committee.

August 8
The SEC is looking into whether Musk’s tweet was misleading or false when he said funding was secured.

August 7
Musk tweets that he has secured funding to take Tesla private. After trading is briefly suspended, Tesla ends the day with an 11% share price increase. In a blog post, Musk makes his case for why being private would be in Tesla’s interest.

August 1
Tesla releases its Q2 earnings, forecasting profitability in Q3 and Q4 to Wall Street’s delight. On an earnings call, Musk apologizes for his actions on social media and for being rude to analysts the prior quarter.

July 18
Musk apologizes to Unsworth, saying "the fault is mine and mine alone."

July 16
Unsworth says he may take legal action against Musk.

July 15
Musk calls Unsworth a "pedo guy" after the diver dismissed Musk’s mini-sub, constructed to assist the Thai rescue, as a "PR stunt."

Hit or miss?

Tesla failed to assert any kind of protocol over Musk. Now, it finds itself in a series of overlapping crises, all caused by erratic impulses of a boss whose judgment is being questioned.

Takeaway #1
Stand up to your boss. 
Don’t like what he or she is doing? Tell them. A CEO who is curious and willing to listen will thank you. Otherwise, you should take your expertise somewhere else.

Takeaway #2
Don’t get Mooched.
Teach your clients and superiors the rules of on background and off the record when talking to the media. Executives that don’t understand those rules tend to go the way of Anthony Scaramucci, the short-tenured former White House comms director.

Takeaway #3
Learn some self-control.
Teenagers with attitude problems should get grounded from using their phones, not CEOs. Losing Twitter privileges deals Musk a humiliating blow that underscores how much he has to grow as a leader. It also highlights the importance of comms in corporate governance. A CEO must stand for something more than his or her personal brand. They have to represent the company and its workers -- in this case, 46,000 people who depend on Musk’s ability to lead responsibly.

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