3 ways Elon Musk fumbled Twitter’s takeover comms

From bungling internal comms to mucking up media relations, Musk’s PR strategy has left much to be desired, says Water & Wall’s Jesse Chen.

Musk forgot that relationships matter in cutting half of Twitter's staff. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve been inundated with news of Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition. You can’t pick up a newspaper, open a newsletter or log onto Twitter itself without hearing about Musk taking the helm. From journalists to ad pros to tech workers, everybody and their mother has an opinion about the world’s richest man and his new $44 billion dollar toy.  

Here in the PR world, as it goes every time a brand or celebrity screws up their messaging on this scale, the group chats have been ablaze with industry chatter. From bungling internal comms to mucking up media relations, Musk’s PR strategy has left much to be desired. Read on for some of his top three missteps.

Decimating Twitter’s comms team

Musk is infamous for his aversion to marketing spend. Rather than invest in ad placements or marketing campaigns, he leverages his personal clout and gimmicky social stunts to keep Tesla and his other endeavors in the news. Who needs an ad budget when you have 115 million followers to blast Tweets to? 

Tesla started out with a PR department — albeit a tiny one compared to its competitors — but in 2020 Musk dissolved the team and has since confirmed he has no plans to bring it back. Exploding Teslas? Self-driving accidents? Systemic, company-wide racism? Who needs a PR team to handle any of that?

So it’s unsurprising one of his first moves at Twitter was to include nearly the entire Twitter comms team in his mass layoffs. Anecdotally, I’ve seen post after post after post from laid off comms Tweeps, and Bloomberg social reporter Kurt Wagner noted in a Tweet on Layoff Day that it seemed like the team was “down to just two people after layoffs.” In the days since, reporters from numerous outlets have reported trouble tracking down anyone on the comms team at all to respond to their inquiries. In a widely-shared New York Times story by Kate Conger, Ryan Mac and Mike Isaac, the reporters drily observed that “Twitter, whose communication department has been laid off, did not respond to a request for comment.” 

While any company Twitter’s (former) size is susceptible to bloat, I just can’t bring myself to believe that two people, if that, are enough to manage comms for such a well-known, beleaguered brand, especially not one navigating a unique crisis like this one. Since the layoffs, Twitter’s lack of availability for comment and Musk’s other changes have generated endless negative coverage that isn’t being managed, all of which is denting the firm’s already fragile reputation. That, put together with the regulatory, safety and growth concerns that Twitter regularly faces and the rampant internal strife following layoffs, and it’s hard to see how Musk won’t end up needing to bring back some comms pros. Will it be too little too late?

Laying off half the company with little notice…in an unsigned letter

Layoffs are never easy. There is no positive way to tell someone they’re losing their job, let alone to tell thousands. That said, there is a right way and a wrong way, and Musk chose the latter. 

Any internal comms pro will tell you that the best leaders approach layoffs with empathy, respect and care. They communicate thoughtfully to their employees, both those leaving and staying, and aim to minimize the impact and scale as much as possible. In-person meetings, or at the very least phone or video calls, should be the method of communication — email is a last resort. Above all, leaders take responsibility.

Musk did none of that. Instead, after just a week in charge, he rolled out mass layoffs by telling employees to check their emails the next morning — or for some international employees, the middle of the night. If it goes to your Twitter email, you’re safe. If it goes to your personal email, do not pass go and do not collect $200, you’re no longer a Twitter employee.

Some employees didn’t even have to wait for emails, but discovered they were part of the layoffs when their Slack, email or Twitter access suddenly cut off the day prior. Others were told in management’s official notice about the incoming emails that, while they should expect to receive their email by 9 a.m. PST, they might not — and were told not to reach out to ask about it until 5 p.m. PST. Imagine not receiving an email and waiting eight hours to ask a general human resources email if you’re still employed. I can already sense the business school professors making case studies. 

Perhaps most egregiously, in both the letter announcing layoffs and in emails laying off specific employees, Musk and Twitter management failed to take accountability. Contrast this to Stripe’s layoff memo the same day, which began with an acknowledgment that the Collison brothers, Stripe’s cofounders and CEO/president, respectively, were “fully responsible for the decisions leading up to it.” The Collisons also included messaging around the broader context for their layoffs, and recognition of the mistakes they’d made as leaders that led to this. 

At Twitter, Musk and management didn’t even sign a name on their layoff memo or emails, let alone take responsibility. Instead, they signed the letters simply as “Twitter.” Negative headlines and social media response aside, his approach is also harmful to Twitter as an employer. No worker wants to stay somewhere that could let them go so callously and disrespectfully, and no prospective employee wants to join that team. Bloomberg’s already reporting that Twitter is asking dozens of laid off employees to come back, and given this debacle I can’t imagine many of them wanting to return. 

Tweeting before thinking

Before the takeover, Musk had a habit of firing off tweets at will on everything from space exploration to politics to Baby Yoda. It was his candor and lack of polish on Twitter, and in the news, that helped build the passionate fan base which propelled him into a position to even acquire Twitter. Gone were the days of inaccessible billionaires showing up for heavily produced, brightly lit TV segments before disappearing into town cars and gated mansions. Here was a billionaire Tweeting away rapid-fire thoughts in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. Stars, they’re just like us! 

Unfortunately for Musk, there’s a huge difference between being a Twitter user and being the man who runs it. As The Verge’s Nilay Patel noted in his viral op-ed soon after the acquisition, Musk is “now the King of Twitter, and people think that [he], personally, [is] responsible for everything that happens on Twitter now.” Tweeting without thinking is no longer an option, because Musk’s Tweets are no longer just Tweets. They’re official communications from the owner and leader of the platform, on the platform itself. 

Retweeting conspiracy theories and posting not just a neo-Nazi quote mistakenly attributed to Voltaire but also a meme of a Nazi, these are the kinds of incidents that drive away advertisers and put off users, not, as Musk claims, “activist groups pressuring advertisers.” General Mills does not want to sell cereal in a Tweet next to a picture of a Nazi, especially if that Nazi was posted by the man running Twitter. Musk’s Tweets also show a lack of strategic direction that undercuts advertisers’ trust in the company’s future; just take a look at his Tweets attempting to negotiate a new pricing model with Stephen King

Brands seek platforms that offer stability and reliability, and both are in short supply these days at Twitter. Companies want to know that their marketing spend is going towards campaigns that will drive sales and burnish their reputation, on a platform that they can trust, and right now Twitter isn’t providing that. It doesn’t help that senior executives are fleeing, or being fired, en masse, or that many of the folks laid off were on teams responsible for moderating content and creating a better, safer experience. Since last week, Twitter has seen a number of high-profile departures including the head of safety and integrity, the chief information security officer, the chief privacy officer and the chief compliance officer, executive departures that do little to assuage concerns about the company’s safety. Above all else, businesses run on relationships, and if you lose almost everybody in charge of those relationships, you can probably expect to lose some of those relationships, too.

In fact, we already have one high-profile example of just how the loss of those teams is playing out. Predictably, once Twitter rolled out verification for all last Thursday, users began creating fake accounts with blue check marks. Satirical Tweets went up by everyone from fake former President George W. Bush to fake American Girl. Notably, pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly was the subject of an impersonator claiming that the company (long criticized for marking up insulin to exorbitant prices) was offering free insulin

For hours, the Tweet remained up despite Eli Lilly’s best efforts to clarify from its own account and get in contact with Twitter, a task made more difficult by the layoffs and resignations of pretty much everyone that would’ve normally handled such a request. The Washington Post reported that “by Friday morning, Eli Lilly executives had ordered a halt to all Twitter ad campaigns,” a loss of ad revenue potentially in the millions. 

If Musk wants to stem the exodus of advertisers, he needs to begin using Twitter with more care. CEOs can’t run around Tweeting quotes or graphics or stories that haven’t been vetted or getting into rows with users over changes in company policies. That’s just the price you pay for running the company.

I admit, I have a soft spot for Twitter. After all, where else could I see Ryanair roasting Boris Johnson about the latest PM election or see a running list of everything Liza Minnelli has outlived, while also getting real-time news updates from around the world? Twitter at its best is a home for everything from academia to activism to comedy, and in the hands of the right leader it could be something truly transformational. Whether Musk can fix the mistakes he’s already made and step up to the plate remains to be seen. 

Jesse Chen is AVP and head of ESG and sustainability at Water & Wall.

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