CEO case study: Elon Musk’s Twitter mistakes

When you think of Elon Musk, what is the first word that comes to mind? People on my social media answered this question with words ranging from “revolutionary” to “ridiculous.”

The public perception of the billionaire’s personal brand is what I would call “muddy.” His antics and social media comments have darkened the shine of his brilliant work.

You might remember his August 2018 Twitter post:

“Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.”

The number 420 is a reference to marijuana. While the comment might have made his 30 million Twitter followers chuckle, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) didn’t laugh.

The SEC sued Musk for stock manipulation. Tesla was ordered to pay a $20 million fine. Plus, Musk was removed as chairman of the board for three years, and the company was required to establish controls and procedures to supervise his business tweets.

Case Study: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla

Company stats: 45,000 employees worldwide and 2019 total revenue of nearly $25 billion
The issue: Elon Musk calls a British cave diver “pedo guy” on Twitter, resulting in a defamation lawsuit
The outcome: Los Angeles jury found Musk not liable for defamation in December 2019

Background: Elon Musk Tweets and the “Pedo Guy” Defamation Lawsuit

Just a month before that $20 million pot post, Musk sent another tweet which eventually landed him in court for defamation.

The situation started with seemingly good intentions.

When 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped in flooded caves in Thailand, Musk tried to help. The world was watching this rescue attempt, and Musk thought a mini-submarine his company had developed could be used as an escape pod.

Musk tweeted:

“Mini-sub arriving in about 17 hours. Hopefully useful. If not, perhaps it will be in a future situation.

At the same time, a British cave explorer Vernon Unsworth was busy using his expertise and knowledge of the caves to be instrumental in ultimately saving the soccer team.

Unsworth received accolades from the Thai government and others for his role during the crisis. It’s important to note, he did not use the mini-sub because he didn’t think it would work.

To prove defamation, you must show actual damages or harm because the false statement was presented as a fact.

After the team was safe, when Unsworth was asked in an interview about the mini-sub, he basically said Musk could stick the PR stunt where it hurts.

Musk responded with a tweet about how he was going to show the mini-sub would have worked, saying “sorry, pedo guy.” Without naming him, the comment was directed at Unsworth, implying he was a pedophile.

After several other exchanges, Unsworth eventually sued Musk for defamation and asked for $190 million in damages. To prove defamation, you must show actual damages or harm because the false statement was presented as a fact. Musk’s lawyers argued this was just heated rhetoric, insults, and not meant as a statement of fact.

The verdict: Not guilty, free speech reigns

The jury took less than an hour to decide the billionaire was not liable.

Reporters obviously covered this high-profile case because Musk was involved, but also because it was one of the first major defamation lawsuits brought by a private individual on a “tweet” ever to go to trial. The jurors’ decision upheld our First Amendment rights of free speech for online comments.

Walking out of the courtroom, Musk said the verdict had restored his faith in humanity.

But what about the initial behavior landing them in court? Were either Unsworth’s or Musk’s comments the best humanity has to offer? Obviously, no.

You could argue Musk speaks to a young rebellious audience who love following his eccentric, bold and edgy remarks. They may rally around him and buy a Tesla because they both like to push the boundaries. The “any publicity is good publicity” adage may be exactly what Musk wants to portray as a leader.

How about you?

Are your pockets deep enough to financially fight off any lawsuit? Are you the kind of CEO who likes to stir the pot, or would you rather stay out of the kitchen? Or somewhere in between?

These are the questions you need to ask yourself before you move your message across all platforms.

As CEO, you are Chief Storyteller

As a former TV personality and now a CEO Storyteller, I work with leaders to write and coach their performances for media interviews and speaking engagements.

As the CEO, you are the Chief Storyteller for yourself and your company.

One of the biggest highlights of my career was walking into the 60 Minutes studios with Vistage member and Delta Defense CEO Tim Schmidt. I knew he was performance-ready for his interview with Steve Kroft.

As the CEO, you are the Chief Storyteller for yourself and your company.

Many CEOs, like Schmidt, know their executive presence and public-speaking skills have the power to rally their employees and their customers.

They understand the need to be wise with their words.

  • Wise leaders are secure with themselves and don’t need to respond to every bit of criticism.
  • Wise leaders have learned the art of killing opponents with kindness because the goodwill raises their stature.
  • Wise leaders care more about their personal and business goals rather than how many “likes” or “hearts” they can rack up from their social media followers.

By the way, when I asked people their one-word description of Elon Musk and it ranged from “revolutionary” to “ridiculous,” the word “wise” was never mentioned.

What ONE word would you like people to describe you? Post your comments below.

Best social media practices for CEOs

  • Social media is meant to be social. Even if your marketing team is in charge of your accounts, take some time each week to respond and engage with your audience.
  • Let people know what great books or articles you are reading. If it’s making you think differently, then we want to know too.
  • Show what type of leader you are by thanking your staff on social media, and don’t forgot those fun work pictures. Remember potential employees will be checking out your accounts.


  • If you are criticized on social media and it stings, don’t react and post the first comment that pops into your head, no matter how clever! Take a deep breath, and then show the post to your public relations or marketing team to decide if it needs to be addressed.
  • Don’t let yourself or your staff be photographed with company logo wear while doing anything not in alignment with your company brand. Sloppy pictures at a bar are never professional. Guidelines should be in your employee manual.
  • Don’t post any comment or picture you wouldn’t send to your best client, pastor or mother.

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Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Katrina Cravy

Katrina Cravy is an Emmy award-winning journalist and founder of CEO Storytellers. Her company matches leaders with former TV journalists to simplify their message and train them to perform for big media interviews

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