For Better and for Worse, Elon Musk Is His Own Spokesman
Little about Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter was conventional, aside from the fact that he paid for it — and that was only after its previous ownership sued him for attempting to back out of the $44 billion agreement. So it stands to reason that, for the journalists who cover the company, the subsequent experience has defied expectations.
High on the list of oddities: Twitter has no press department, because everyone who was part of the team either fled or was fired not long after Mr. Musk’s takeover. The absence of in-house publicists means that reporters have had no one to call for comment when they are about to file their dispatches on the latest goings-on at Twitter.
“I just email the big guy,” said Max Tani, a media reporter at the digital news site Semafor. “It’s been a giant black box, but maybe other people have had an easier time.”
It doesn’t seem that way, to go by a common refrain in articles about the company.
“Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment,” went a line in a Feb. 3 article in The Wall Street Journal on the company’s attempt to win back advertisers who had left since Mr. Musk’s purchase.
“Twitter did not respond to questions from The Associated Press,” The A.P. noted in a Jan. 19 article on how searches on the site for the word “climate” yielded “dozens of posts denying the reality of climate change.”
Similar lines have appeared in articles in The New York Times and a wide array of other news outlets. “Our reporters continue to find it difficult to get official comment from the company,” Charlie Stadtlander, a Times spokesman, said. (The same holds true for this article — Mr. Musk did not respond to an email requesting comment.)
Ordinarily, the complaints of beat reporters center on their battles with their counterparts in public relations, who alternate between obfuscation and heavy-handedness.
“The norm at a big company is that there is a corporate communications office,” Margaret Sullivan, a columnist for The Guardian and onetime public editor for The Times, said. “You often get a no comment. You often get something that is not true or is not helpful. But there’s usually someone to ask.”
For journalists, the situation at Twitter may be a case of be careful what you wish for.
“It actually makes covering the company tougher,” Mr. Tani said. “Oftentimes you need someone on the other side, even if it’s to push back and say that something you’re planning on reporting is wrong.”
Particularly since the main subject of the coverage appears to be paying close attention.
A self-professed “free speech absolutist,” Mr. Musk has said that he wants Twitter to be a town square where all ideas, no matter how unpopular, may be expressed. He has also been cooperative with Walter Isaacson, who has written biographies of Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein and is now working on a book about Mr. Musk. “He’s been very, very open,” Mr. Isaacson told The Times last year, “not only him and the people around him, but he’s been very good at allowing me access to people from his past.”
At the same time, Mr. Musk has tangled publicly with journalists who have seemingly gotten under his skin. In December, Twitter suspended the accounts of eight journalists, including Ryan Mac, a tech reporter for The Times. Those suspensions came a day after Mr. Musk pulled the plug on more than 25 accounts that tracked the planes of government agencies, billionaires and celebrities.
Some of the journalists barred by Twitter had reported on the accounts that tracked flight data or had chronicled Mr. Musk’s stewardship of the company in detail. “You’re not special because you’re a journalist; you’re a citizen, so no special treatment,” Mr. Musk told reporters during a Twitter audio session shortly after the accounts were deactivated. Following criticism from First Amendment advocates and threats of sanctions from European regulators, Twitter reinstated the journalists’ accounts.
One reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his employer would not permit him to discuss Mr. Musk publicly, compared writing about Twitter to covering a White House in which the person in charge is both press-obsessed and chaotic, leading to debates on whether his airing of grievances about the news media is part of his genius or a manifestation of his childishness.
Mr. Musk has enlisted communications consultants at times. But his history of capriciousness and saying incendiary things (often by tweet) has sometimes created challenges for the advisers brought in to manage those impulses.
In 2018, Mr. Musk lobbed an insult at one of his critics, calling him a “pedo guy,” or pedophile, in a series of angry tweets. Amid substantial fallout, he turned to the communications consultant Juleanna Glover, whose clients have included John McCain and James Murdoch and who had advised Mr. Musk’s electric car company, Tesla. Mr. Musk ultimately apologized for the tweets.
A brief tango with Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis, a New York public relations firm that has advised people ranging from Barbra Streisand to Bill de Blasio, ended poorly, according to someone at the company who requested anonymity to discuss a former client.
As Mr. Musk moved crabwise toward acquiring Twitter last year, some of the communications duties fell to Alex Spiro, a lawyer best known for representing Jay-Z. Mr. Spiro had worked with Mr. Musk in 2019, after the person he had accused of being a pedophile filed a defamation lawsuit; a jury concluded that Mr. Musk had not defamed his detractor, having determined that “pedo guy” was used as a generic insult during the billionaire’s South African childhood.
Not long after completing the Twitter deal in October, Mr. Musk fired Twitter’s chief executive, Parag Agrawal, and gave Mr. Spiro more duties. But as of December, The Times reported, Mr. Spiro was no longer at Twitter.
Like Twitter, Tesla does not have a designated public relations team. Mr. Musk addressed the decision to do without a Tesla press office (over Twitter, natch) in 2021: “Other companies spend money on advertising & manipulating public opinion, Tesla focuses on the product,” he wrote.
Risa Heller, a crisis manager whose clients have included the former CNN worldwide president Jeff Zucker and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, said that Mr. Musk “clearly believes he’s his own best spokesman and therefore does not need the help of a professional communicator.”
“I happen to think it’s a foolish decision,” Ms. Heller added. “But then, no one has asked me.”