Reluctant Twitter Owner Musk Poses Huge PR Problems

elon musk

Saying there’s no shortage of controversy around Elon Musk is a large understatement. Similarly, there’s no dearth of drama surrounding Musk’s pending Twitter purchase.

The latest: Twitter's board sued Musk July 12. The board wants a Delaware court to force Musk to go through with his proposed buy. For several reasons, Musk says he wants out of Twitter.  

The casual observer could interpret Musk's intended departure as an easy win for Twitter—a chance to escape the billionaire's volatile media circus. No more of his polarizing takes about Twitter’s free-speech and safety policies. In addition, Twitter could say farewell to his crusade against spam bots and allegations that the company is withholding information.

Public persona and shareholder concerns

However, there are shareholders. And laws

Twitter shares have tanked in part because of the economic downturn and a depressed tech economy. Moreover, Wall Street is fleeing Twitter stock, anticipating a long, expensive battle with Musk.

As such, shareholders want a payday. Musk's generous $44 billion purchase offer is quite a windfall.  

“When Elon initially wanted to buy Twitter, it was at a significant premium...their board couldn't turn it down and still be acting in the best interest of shareholders,” says Adam Croglia, managing director, Trysail Strategies, a public affairs consultancy. 

Considering Twitter's share-price drop, the board likely views its fiduciary responsibility as dominant. "They're not in a spot where they can make a decision based on [Musk's vision, PR considerations or] what might even be best for the company...their decision is forced, [it's] just to satisfy what's [financially] best for shareholders.”

Employee concerns

On the other hand, a question for communicators, and anyone at Twitter, is how can a company operate when everyone knows its possible new owner doesn’t want to be there?

This question influences everything from PR and employee morale to the company's future.

For instance, how do you communicate a public persona with users? Do you simply proceed with internal PR and ignore the Musk hubbub, especially when the news cycle has gone off the rails? 

Certainly, “it...takes some of the steam away from the in-house" communicators, Croglia says. Twitter's 7,500 employees, he says, may learn about company news via CNN or The New York Times before they hear it from internal communicators. 

Recruitment, retention and tough times ahead

During leadership turmoil, it’s sometimes best for internal communicators to join forces with HR. Both units can help reassure employees that those in charge have their best interests at heart, despite some instability. 

Another tactic, Croglia says, is articulating "that Twitter's not really" the cause of the commotion. Instead, Twitter is "the bystander." This could exonerate Twitter executives "in the eyes of its employees.”

Of course, whacking Musk is risky, especially if he becomes Twitter's owner.

On the other hand, Twitter's internal and external communication will be problematic with or without Musk.

Indeed the company likely will remain under a cloud. Employees may fear instability and flock to new jobs. Potential hires may reconsider. And a deflating share price won't help.  

Hope and headaches

Yet Gene Grabowski, partner, kglobal, sees Twitter rebounding. It's a fixture of social media, he argues.

Still, he admits Twitter faces “enormous headaches.” 

Adding a leader whom the board "had to sue to acquire the company” will handicap any company, Grabowski says. For Twitter, it's especially bad owing to the company's "headline-grabbing public policy issues, scrutiny from lawmakers and severe internal disagreements...."

Grabowski also notes a Musk regime likely means layoffs, irrespective of financial issues. Musk, he says, will want to be surrounded by those who supported him. 

“Unwelcome owners...should lead by example, speak their mind and set high standards,” Grabowski says. In addition, they should "install executives and working professionals whom they trust and who thrive under pressure in a turbulent environment.”

He adds, “to outsiders, and many inside the company, it isn’t pretty...but it might be the only way for an unwanted owner to take effective control...."

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal