It seems like Elon Musk, founder of Space X and Tesla, might be sued for his comments against UK diver, Vernon Unsworth. The spat began in July when, after playing a critical role in the saving of the 12 Thai boys and their coach in the high profile cave rescue mission, Unsworth publicly dismissed Musk’s mini submarine idea. Musk responded to Unsworth by calling him a “pedo guy” in a public tweet.

Screenshots of tweet thread in which Musk called Unsworth a
Screenshots of tweet thread in which Musk called Unsworth a “pedo guy”. Photo: via

Although Musk later apologised for his reaction to Unsworth’s comments and the situation appeared defused, the former recently opened the old can of worms once again. In yet another Twitter conversation with a separate user, Musk argued that Unsworth would’ve taken legal action against him, had his allegations been untrue.

This is not the first time Musk, who has 22.4 million followers on Twitter, might have done better had he kept his thoughts off of social media. Earlier this month, Musk tweeted that he was considering bringing Tesla private at $420 a share, a fact that the Tesla board itself was apparently unaware of.

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In a bid to do some damage control, the Tesla board requested that Musk stop tweeting, but to no avail.

When founders and their companies become intertwined.

Musk is the founder of several high profile tech companies. Over the years, he has established himself as a genius and a revolutionary and has cultivated a strong presence on social media (particularly Twitter), making himself the face of some of these tech companies at the same time.

Founder stories and interactions are often wonderful for a company’s PR. Think young genius and college dropout Zuckerberg when Facebook was just starting to gain traction as a social media platform for friends and family.

Stories humanise the brand, making it more accessible to consumers and potential users of a product or service. Facebook isn’t trying to get everyone onboard so that it can make money by selling your data, it’s a “free” social networking platform that allows you to connect (and stay connected) with your friends and family! It’s the brainchild of a student who designed the website only for college use, but who dropped out to take his idea to greater heights!

Instead of a cold, faceless organization, consumers are treated to what they believe are insights to a company (through its founder) and are given additional reasons to support it. When you add yourself to the Facebook network, you’re not just connecting with loved ones, you’re also supporting a fast-growing startup conceived of by a college student!

And what better way to craft this story than by having your founder on social media, answering questions and building direct relationships with the company’s fans (and detractors)? How much more relatable can a company get than when its founder personally interacts with its customers?

But what happens when founders go rogue?

When the founder’s story becomes an integral part of the company’s story, and interactions between founder and customer become an integral part of the company’s public relations, what the founder says on social media will invariably affect the company’s image.

If founders go rogue, or post controversial or questionable opinions on their public social media accounts, the public’s impression of the company they helm will tends towards the negative as well. This holds true even if the founder makes their posts on a personal account, or makes a statement about an issue wholly unrelated to the company.

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When Musk called Unsworth a “pedo guy” in his tweet, Tesla’s shares dropped by 4%. His allegation had nothing to do with Tesla, but implicated the company anyway, as investors expressed concern over his mercurial behaviour.

A similar issue occurred with beauty brand Kat Von D, when its founder, Katherine von Drachenberg, posted her decision not to vaccinate her child on her public Instagram account in June this year. Although the decision made was a personal one, and had absolutely nothing to do with the Kat Von D brand, consumers decided that they would boycott the brand to show their displeasure against her anti-vaccination stance.

I knew the minute we announced our pregnancy that we would be bombarded with unsolicited advice. Some good and some questionable – unsolicited none the less. I also was prepared for the backlash and criticism we would get if we decided to be open about our personal approach to our pregnancy. My own Father flipped out on me when I told him we decided to ditch our doctor and go with a midwife instead. If you don’t know what it’s like have people around you think you are ridiculous, try being openly vegan. And, if you don’t know what it’s like to have the entire world openly criticize, judge, throw uninformed opinions, and curse you – try being an openly pregnant vegan on Instagram, having a natural, drug-free home birth in water with a midwife and doula, who has the intention of raising a vegan child, without vaccinations. My point being: I already know what it’s like to make life choices that are not the same as the majority. So your negative comments are not going influence my choices – actual research and educating myself will – which i am diligently doing. This is my body. This is our child. And this is our pregnancy journey. Feel free to follow me on here if you like what I’m about – whether it’s tattooing, lipstick, Animal Rights, sobriety, feminism, ridiculous gothiness, black flower gardening, cats, or my adorable husband. But if you don’t dig a certain something about what I post, i kindly ask that you press the unfollow button and move the fuck on. So before anyone of you feel inspired to tell me how to do this, I would appreciate you keeping your unsolicited criticism to yourself. More importantly, for those who have amazing positive energy to send my way, I will gladly and graciously receive it with love! X

A post shared by 𝐊𝐀𝐓 𝐕𝐎𝐍 𝐃 (@thekatvond) on

And the truth is, in the age of social media, it doesn’t take much for a founder to go “rouge”. The same elements that create a sense of personal connection between founders of a company and the company’s customers–candid, witty responses, occasional glimpses into the founder’s personal lives, shared values between founder and customer–also frequently become points of contention.

Candour and wit can quickly cross the line into vitriol, respectable lives can degenerate into the sordid when one too many personal details are revealed and, as Katherine von Drachenberg can attest, just because your fanbase agrees with you on some of the values you hold and the associated choices you make (e.g. veganism and home births), doesn’t mean that they would do so for all of them (e.g. non-vaccination). When you have a few million, or even a few hundred followers on social media, it’s difficult to please them all.

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So, is it in the best interests of a company to have its founder(s) on social media?

Do the benefits of humanising a brand outweigh the costs of its founder (potentially) going rouge? There is unfortunately no single, right answer to this question.

The important thing to remember is that when founders share centre stage with the companies they helm, any comment or statement made by said founders will have a spillover effect onto the companies as well. A PR disaster for the founder is likely to become a PR disaster for the company.

While large corporations can afford to make a few mistakes here and there, startups ought to be more careful about the negative press founder opinions on social media can bring. The Kat Von D brand is unlikely to be toppled by a few people boycotting its products, but a small-time skincare startup needs all the customers it can get.

The larger the presence the founder has on social media, the more the company ought to consider running their posts by a PR team. If startup founders are not ready or don’t wish to be in the limelight, it is probably best to keep any presence on social media private, limited only to those whom they can trust.

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