Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Business & EconomicsTech

Yes, We Still Have To Talk About Elon Musk’s Media Relations Response.

There was a lively debate on Threads, the latest entry in the platform economy trying to dismantle the entirety of civil society, over whether it was disingenuous for a CNBC article to refer to Twitter’s official response to press inquiries with– yep- a poop emoji. We know that this is a thing, a journalist lamented. We have to stop talking about it like it’s a real thing! After all, Twitter has been doing this for awhile, right? Does that mean we should normalize it and just brush it off? Business as usual? Just another poop emoji, huh? Is it all, in fact, just poop? Always has been?!

Poop emojis from around the world. While all are recognized under Unicode U+1F4A9, they appear differently based on the operating system or software.

Wait a minute. What’s going on here?

In case you’ve been blissfully unaware, we live in an era in which the rich, powerful, and my Republican in-laws (who are neither but seem to love the first two categories) alike are openly and even gleefully hostile to the press. Trump made it a hallmark of his entire presidency, with perhaps the most notorious moments being when he encouraged his supporters to beat up members of a free press at his rally, or when his surrogate and now-governor of Montana Greg Gianforte actually did this to a journalist (and Grinnell College alum!).

I keep mentioning these because we cannot afford to normalize these incidents as a society.

Meanwhile, when longtime Trump fan Apartheid Clyde took over Twitter, he made swift moves to fire lots of people (including people he later pleaded with to come back) and slice and dice entire departments. This included, among many others, the media relations department. Tesla did the same thing in 2020. Inquiries to press@twitter.com are returned with naught but a poop emoji.

We know the dude is a petulant teenager. His fans, ever keen to insist that everything the man does is part of some game of four-dimensional chess, don’t seem to mind. But this is a problem in an era in which media is increasingly paywalled and politics are increasingly polarized. (Elon Musk doesn’t care– he’s got like $250 billion. I don’t think I’d care about random people complaining about me if I had $250 billion, either, I guess).

Twitter has continued to operate on a skeletal staff of what it once was since Elon Musk bought the company for $44 billion last year (it has since lost more than 60% of its value, which surprises no one). Intriguing though this might be for someone like me, who has long argued that tech is designed to be overcapitalized and overstaffed because of a self-reinforcing economic model that amounts to a sort of welfare state for the rich, they could have at least kept the media relations team, in an era in which media is struggling pretty seriously.

Why Having A (Hopefully Competent) Media Relations Team Is Crucial

A media team provides the venue for an organization to call the shots on information that goes out of the organization and, to some degree, the information that comes in. Well-run, they can be tools for marketing. Poorly run, they are likely to lead journalists to come to their own conclusions, seek out confidential sources, and sometimes even make incorrect conclusions because the media team either misrepresented, lied, or simply didn’t communicate. I ran into this issue when I wrote about the health effects of wildfire smoke, in which no one seemed too interested in speaking with me, whether Henry Ford’s “are you even a real journalist” dismissive response; DMC, which barely responded at all; or Ascension, in which I only got a response via Twitter.

If a media relations team from an organization is unresponsive or nonexistent, it’s the mark of an organization that doesn’t particularly care about its public image. Full stop.

Media relations teams come in all shapes, sizes, and political slants. Some media officers come from a corporate communications background and are great at formulating messaging and information strategy. Others come from news media background. An emergent category is the integration of media relations with information management as some companies include a Chief Information Officer in the C-suite. This is distinct from media relations per se, but it is often connected via that whole “information” thing! Irrespective of the origins of these folks, they are at least meant to be the gatekeepers to all media connectivity in the company.

While this is often annoying to someone like me, who has to field thoroughly obnoxious and unprofessional questions (that all invariably translate to “yeah, but are you a real journalist?”), it can be highly valuable for the purpose of maintaining a consistent strategy about communications. Media relations people have to be the figureheads of an organization’s strategic communications platform. They get to craft the message, which means that they get to call the shots on the narrative– with some important caveats about how to manage or bungle public relations.

Less Information Is Bad For Business

Companies that are opaque leave journalists to fill in the gaps, not based on speculation, but based on what information they can find. In Twitter’s case, any number of well-connected journalists have been able to extract top secret information out of the company even with Musk’s frankly foolish dismantling of the company’s media team. This exposes the company to even more risk. I’ve written about the value of more information in ESG, for example. The City of Detroit’s opaque media apparatus, for example, has often left people like me to search for FOIA requests and rely on internal sources that often provide valuable information, but not necessarily the full picture. Opacity and siloing mean fragmentation of information, and this has a sort of ripple effect in that it can undermine the organizational integrity as well as undermine the public image of the company (or subject it to unwanted scrutiny, whether from the media or from regulatory power of the state).

Anyway, it’s just a stupid poop emoji, yes. But it’s also something that’s wildly immature on the part of Mr. Musk. We don’t need to look too much farther than the fact that Twitter’s valuation has been slashed by about 2/3 since Musk took over, as advertisers flee the platform in droves, searching for more stability (and less fascist drivel). And that 2/3 figure is assuming that its $44 billion valuation was even in the ballpark of financial reality to begin with. I personally think it is not, and I tend to think that tech companies are all overvalued by a third to double what they should be (TSLA trades at 84x P/E, which is several times higher than the average of the S&P 500, to which all companies trend over a long enough horizon). I guess we will just have to stay tuned to find out whether Twitter becomes a stanky turd of pixels itself, like the only response its media relations bot can be bothered to send out.

A response that, mind you, professional journalists have to consider the only real response the company can deign to offer, no matter how ridiculous this sounds in a live television broadcast.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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