There’s an aphorism in the PR business that there’s no such thing as bad press. While this is debatable – in fact, I’m about to debate it – it’s certainly true that controversy is an important consideration in generating media attention. But in going down that route you need to consider how that controversy relates to and impacts the underlying brand, whether corporate or personal. Elon Musk either has never learned this lesson or, more likely given his net worth, has decided he just doesn’t care.

First, an observation from a branding standpoint: there’s good controversy, questionable controversy… and negative controversy.

Around this time of year many of our clients are engaged in the art of predictions. Where is the industry headed? How is technology changing? What does that mean for customers? We often tell them that the more controversial and provocative the prediction, the more likely it is to draw attention. Controversy is not inherently bad. True, it implies that the debate is “prolonged, public and heated” – but that often just means that people are passionate about their point of view. Stirring the pot to ignite debate can be a good thing, and draw positive attention.

What could make that controversy questionable? Let me point you to our former president. Donald J Trump’s brand – at least from a political standpoint – is built around igniting passions in his followers by sticking it to the other side. The more controversial and over the top his statements, the more it helps his brand among those who are already a fan. At the same time, that very controversy hurts his standing with those that aren’t on his side. In 2016 that use of controversy got him elected president. Every election thereafter, it hurt him. Although notably, even in 2020 when he lost, the controversy helped him generate record turnout. It’s just that the other side’s turnout was even greater.

From a brand management standpoint this creates a conundrum… the more he appeals to his base, i.e., embraces his brand, the more he loses those that don’t share his views. Even still, the controversy helped catapult him to leader of the Republican party and ultimately the highest office in the land by building (at least for a time) a stronger brand loyalty among one segment of the population than the brand-damage hurt with other segments.

Now consider this in light of Elon Musk. Musk had an extremely strong personal brand as a business leader and technology genius, and that personal brand created a positive aura around his companies – notably Tesla Motors.

Then Twitter happened. To be clear, it’s not the deal itself that had a meaningful impact, it’s how he handled the purchase and subsequent controversial decisions in an exceedingly public venue. I’d argue it’s not the decisions themselves, per se, that had the negative impact. It’s the social/press attention surrounding those decisions. I believe every decision made – whether you agree with the wisdom or not – could have been handled out of the limelight with minimal long term reputational damage.

Now, one could argue that in a vacuum, Musk’s controversial media attention puts him in the same category as Trump; the things he’s done have helped him with a certain audience while at the same time hurting him with others.

What pushes this from questionable to bad judgement, however, is the relationship between Elon’s personal brand and that of Tesla. In many regards, Elon Musk is Tesla Motors. And Tesla’s customers and investors – that is to say, it’s brand audience – is very much in the camp that is being turned off by the Twitter spectacle. The audience segment Musk is losing closely correlates with the base he needs to keep for Tesla to be successful. As a result, the company’s stock price is off more than 70% from recent highs.

The larger point is that being controversial is not inherently bad from a brand standpoint. But it’s important to understand the audience you’re targeting, and be aware of the potential for collateral damage. If an executive goes off the rails, it may adversely affect the company. And if that company is Tesla (or Twitter or SpaceX), there won’t be anything you can do about it.