The recent US Security and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) censure of Tesla CEO Elon Musk due to his tweets points out how far removed many US major institutions are from the reality of effective contemporary communication.
Social media, with its potential for candid and fluid back-and-forth chats, can develop relationships in a more natural, organic, and influential way than corporate communications historically have.
It also promotes and reinforces knowledge and thoughtful discussion, sometimes hastening important social change.
Musk’s social media messaging is indicative of today’s participatory allure, in which consumers have a real chance of grabbing Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame and in which corporations can learn and improve.
Warhol’s epiphany into the post-modern individual anticipated that, as cameras shrank and screens multiplied, the barriers to everyday people’s fame would be reduced.
An individual like Elon Musk, who possesses power in the current moment as well as a keen vision of a sustainable world tomorrow, epitomizes social power asymmetries where the famous interact with the familiar.
Elon’s tweets, as far as we have seen after much research, have never come across as fraudulent statements nor misrepresentations of fiscal status.
Yet, the SEC has demanded that Tesla “put in place additional controls and procedures to oversee Musk’s communications.” Not only are many of us skeptical that Musk will adhere to the exact letters of the SEC deal, but it seems incredibly obvious that the SEC has missed out on the big picture of contemporary social media marketing and has attempted to stifle something it should be promoting — transparency and communication between companies and their shareholders and customers.
Interconnections between Tesla’s rise in the marketplace and Musk’s tweets have never been a secret, as the SEC acknowledged in its settlement press release (“despite notifying the market in 2013 that it intended to use Musk’s Twitter account as a means of announcing material information about Tesla and encouraging investors to review Musk’s tweets”). The specific argument that the SEC has made about one specific idea or possibility for the company (claiming that there were “false and misleading tweets about a potential transaction to take Tesla private”) seems contradictory to how Elon Musk uses Twitter and how his followers understand he uses it, which is to engage with consumers and shareholders and thus provide them with more of a voice on substantial company matters. Announcing the idea on Twitter was a way — the most logical way — to specifically ask all shareholders for their perspective on that idea. Musk used the term “considering” and said in the end that the decision to proceed or not was up to shareholders. What more could a shareholder want than to be involved in such a momentous decision?
A More Even Market Playing Field with Musk and Twitter?
“The future of advertising is the internet.”
— Bill Gates
Tesla’s 2018 settlement with the SEC included an agreement that Musk would not tweet about the company without clearance from the company’s legal team. (“Tesla will establish a new committee of independent directors and put in place additional controls and procedures to oversee Musk’s communications.”) For anyone who spends at least a small time each day on one of the many and evolving social media platforms, we know that such an agreement — if it could actually be enacted — takes Musk’s voice and authenticity out of what has been long understood as Tesla’s primary method of marketing.
Tweeting is part of the Tesla marketing palette that includes YouTube as well but not traditional advertising or Facebook, but the Tesla consumer base closely watches and clings to Musk’s tweets, not Tesla’s YouTube channel or even its corporate Twitter channel. The authenticity and substantive information provided by Musk on Twitter is partly why he is followed 23 million users on Twitter and the Tesla account is followed by only 3 million. Additionally, Musk is more playful and downright funny on his account, and also tweets about SpaceX, The Boring Company, and AI. Furthermore, he drops normal, human notes about the importance of innovation, particularly with regard to Tesla. Should spur-of-the-moment comments like that be slowed and stifled by a panel of tweet reviewers?
Since its rise to public recognition, Tesla has insisted that traditional print advertising just isn’t the right fit for the clean energy and electric car company. The closest it got was a 2017 amateur video ad contest suggested by a 10-year-old, something Musk seemingly discovered via Twitter. Musk then announced the competition via Twitter and announced the winner to his 11 million Twitter followers.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 29, 2017
The tools and strategies for communicating with customers have changed significantly with the emergence of social media. Fluid internet-based messages have become a major factor in influencing various aspects of consumer behavior — consumer awareness, spread of information, opinion molding, purchase behavior, and post-purchase communication and evaluation.
Musk’s early understanding of social media’s potential as a hybrid promotional mix created the very mentor-to-consumer conversations which the SEC has designated as problematic. Honestly, though, Elon’s tweets are a signifier of the types of conversations that major corporations the world over are now incorporating to drive the marketplace. To stifle such a notable corporate user of Twitter is to stifle a shift to this more fluid, open, public approach to communications.
Musk’s Tweets Translate into a Kind of Everyman Communication
“Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”
— Mark Twain
Wall Street Journal conducted an analysis of Musk’s tweets from 2018 and prior, and although that exposé predated the SEC debacle, it does offer us some fascinating good insights into Musk’s tweets. His ubiquitous presence in social media everyday life has largely been about persuading an audience to “drink the Tesla Kool-Aid.” That should not have come as a surprise to anyone, including the SEC.
However, he does so in a way that is highly atypical of large corporate CEOs — he replies a great deal of the time to fellow tweeters. He is not only blasting a message. There is clearly mutual influence through the communication — a genuine back and forth. Many consumer ideas are incorporated into the products, and it appears Musk wanted to engage shareholder ideas in a similar way.
It gets even more interesting.
Elon’s replies are not exclusively for big-named individuals with gigantic numbers of followers. Rather, they tend to be directed more to people who have fewer than 500 followers than those who have over 2000 followers! That makes Elon Musk a kind of everyman — in a sense, he is just another social media user who shares experiences, interpretations, and perspectives. And that is how he has explained he feels in certain circumstances, such as when he was defensively reacting to what he considered very misleading and unjust criticisms of his efforts to help others.
Musk validates participants who use social media — people aiming to generate ideas about society’s sustainability problems and solutions, people aiming to improve Tesla’s products, and people simply looking for some connection with one of the most influential people in society, someone who inspires them. His insistence on behaving as an everyman and not acting as though he’s above the crowd gives others the confidence to aspire to the same level of success, realizing that he is just human as they are.
Social co-production, in which humans produce something together despite being miles apart, is the foundation of social media. The SEC agreement alienates communicative co-production across classes and geography.
Because Musk’s Twitter tone is casual, he seems more approachable and real than other corporate CEOs. As early as 2006, Henry Jenkins coined the term “participatory culture” to describe US teens who were becoming media creators. Web 2.0, as it has also been called, transformed information dissemination and formalized digital technologies’ role in social persuasion. It designates the involvement of users, audiences, consumers, and fans in the creation of culture and content.
Elon Musk’s tweets have become more than a give-and-take with followers and even contain the occasional self-deprecating humor. Indeed, Jenkins‘ description of participatory culture as having “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices” is a keen explanation of Musk’s relationship to his Twitter followers. He is the experienced techno-geek participant who is sharing his physics background and sustainability vision to lesser experienced individuals who, in turn, decide if and what type of buy-in — whether financial or philosophical — they will offer.
Wired correlated Musk’s Twitter activity and Tesla’s tumultuous stock price, highlighting the moments where the market’s evaluation of the company’s worth rose or fell based on the CEO’s posts. Is this fraud or finesse? A dialectic or disingenuous digital marketing?
“Advertising is the art of convincing people to
spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.”
— Will Rogers
Elon Musk’s tweets as effective climate change infotainment and for-profit argumentation should be distinguished from out-and-out overt attempts to unfairly manipulate the capitalist system.
Musk is an object lesson for the rest of us about the profit and persuasion inherent within social media. As he is unlike corporate CEOs in many other ways, Elon’s tweets, too, are uniquely Elon. While most CEOs have an invisible infrastructure that designs media messages as carefully controlled speech, Musk is authentic, unpredictable, and representative of our society today. It is one of the things his followers absolutely love about him and Tesla.
Social media offers a melting pot communicative exchange, a disregard for traditional media measures, and an opportunity to make transparent participatory culture’s influence on social norms and markets. Let’s let Elon be Elon, shall we? We’ll benefit in the long run from his art and spontaneity.