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Love him or loathe him, there’s no doubt that Elon Musk is one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs of his generation — if not all time.
Whether it’s news about one of his companies, gossip about his love life, or reaction to his latest controversial tweet, rarely a week goes by in which Musk’s name is not in the headlines.
This is even more impressive given how vocally opposed Musk is to PR and advertising, once tweeting that he doesn’t believe in “manipulating public opinion.” In 2020, he dissolved Tesla’s PR department, and his 2022 Twitter takeover was infamous for axing thousands of jobs, many from the communications team.
This past month he also created an automatic poop emoji response for all media requests sent to email@example.com.
firstname.lastname@example.org now auto responds with ?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 19, 2023
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But if this tempts you to conclude that traditional PR no longer serves a purpose, think again. Musk is a media pro, but like a great magician, he doesn’t want to draw attention to it.
Reaching his current level of notoriety took time, patience, and plenty of strategic know-how. So, rather than taking his public stance on PR at face value, let’s take a detailed look at the strategies Musk has employed to build his brands into household names.
Musk’s (real) approach to media relations
Closing Tesla’s PR department was an unprecedented move in the auto industry. But his decision was not made because Musk no longer wanted media coverage for his company. Instead, he no longer had to bother. In the final months of Tesla’s press office, its PR team was hit with hundreds of journalist inquiries on a daily basis — something most companies can only dream of.
Musk has never been neglectful of Tesla’s PR. On the contrary, from its inception to the current day, he has taken an extraordinarily hands-on approach to the company’s media strategy. Because of this, the coverage of him and his companies has snowballed over time.
The best-selling biography, Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, details just how involved Musk was as the Tesla name first started to gain attention, personally leading efforts to achieve media attention and “fix” any negative press. He set a goal for the company to make a weekly announcement and personally drafted press releases and conducted media outreach to ensure he secured his desired results. Musk was also known to search for news coverage about his companies at least once a day.
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Here’s the first essential lesson for founders and CEOs: Musk understood that leaders must pay close attention to the stories they’re sharing with the media, set a consistent communications cadence, and build relationships with reporters.
Musk also knew (and knows) the importance of growing relationships with specific journalists.
There’s a reason why he doesn’t read publications but rather follows individual journalists. Instead of sending out a lot of general information to outlets, Musk gave certain reporters exclusive first access to information. This was the case with Kara Swisher, one of the industry’s most influential journalists to whom Musk often gave numerous interviews. (Their relationship has since turned frosty, to say the least.)
Far from dismissing the importance of traditional PR efforts, Musk was a master of disseminating the story he wanted to tell through a steady flow of outreach. Just take a look at Tesla’s blogs and announcements to see this first-hand.
Executed like a PR pro, he knew that these communications and his relationships with the media would help create a persistent buzz fueling buyer interest.
Musk sells the dream
Beyond the basics, Musk understood that when it comes to PR, it’s much less about selling products than it is about selling impact and emotions. With SpaceX, for example, Musk has perfectly exemplified how to sell a dream via storytelling.
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Announcements have always been filled with visionary language and daring ideas. In a 2011 interview, Musk made waves with his hope to send humans to Mars within 10–20 years. In 2019, riding the sustainability trend, he announced he wanted to build the first sustainable city on Mars.
As inspiring and memorable as those images are, the money-making day-to-day operations at SpaceX are a bit more mundane. The company generates most of its revenue by sending satellites into space on behalf of the US government to provide high-speed broadband internet to remote and rural areas worldwide. But when SpaceX raised $750 million in its latest funding round, satellites and broadband weren’t the main attraction of the presentation. That’s because Musk knows it’s the big dreams and challenging ideas that catch peoples’ attention.
Business leaders should take note. When communicating your business ideas/projections, you must stand out from the pack by highlighting the big vision behind your model for success. Home in on your customers’ underlying passions and desires — what it is that gets them dreaming — and make sure the stories you’re telling resonate emotionally.
He controls the narrative, subtly
It’s clear that Musk is adept at PR, but he doesn’t need or want everyone to know it.
This is further proven by the fact that he doesn’t go entirely radio silent. Instead, he makes sure (as best he can) that the message he wants to convey is the story that gets covered, diverting attention from his British caver lawsuits or the Tesla buyout.
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For instance, in December 2022 he launched a controversial Twitter poll asking the public to decide whether he should step down as the CEO of the platform.
Should I step down as head of Twitter? I will abide by the results of this poll.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 18, 2022
After more than 17 million votes were cast with 57.5% of respondents voting to oust him, Musk announced he would resign “when a suitable replacement was found” leaving many to doubt that he would abide by the results of the poll as promised. Yet he did stick to his word, appointing Linda Yaccarino as Twitter’s new CEO on May 12th. What’s interesting here is that Musk never intended to stay on as the CEO in the first place, but his “public referendum” made sure that the subject dominated headlines for months.
Musk has also been keen to court attention for his ongoing public spat with NPR after he assigned the news outlet, along with many others, the labels “government-funded” and “state-affiliated” on Twitter. While these labels have now been removed the story continues to receive rolling coverage thanks to new tidbits of information that Musk releases to the public.
These labels also sparked a surprise, impromptu interview with BBC reporter James Clayton on Twitter Spaces during which it became clear that Musk had no plans to be a passive participant, with Clayton commenting that at “several times it felt like he was trying to interview me.“
While no one can control media coverage completely, it’s important to engage with reporters to increase the likelihood of your company securing positive coverage. And, if there ever is a PR crisis, having relationships with the media means you are more likely to deliver some form of damage control.
Musk knows that media coverage matters, and his brands are where they are today thanks to his knowledge of PR. Building a pipeline of announcements, diverting the narrative towards positive stories, and creating a memorable vision are all valuable ways to generate media coverage that doesn’t waver.