President of the Nashville office of Dalton Agency, Jeff is a former journalist with 30+ years of experience as a PR professional.
I’ve been in the PR business for almost 40 years now, and I have never seen anyone own the news media like Elon Musk.
Here’s a guy who has tweeted some controversial—and at times, distasteful—things, and has emerged with a reputation unscathed. (While he has taken temporary hits for posting these tweets, the long-term damage to his reputation has been nil.) Even though he has been (according to some reports) disdainful of “woke” or DEI culture and other tenets of progressive America that are widely supported by corporate America and national media, he is generally treated well by the national media, where he is basically portrayed as a sort of loveable mad scientist.
The easy answer, of course, could be that Musk is the world’s richest man. But the fact that Musk is wealthy is an effect, not a cause. And I suggest that when we figure out the causes of his financial success, we can also identify the causes of his success in the media. I believe the causes behind his success boil down to attitudes and beliefs that set him apart from his peers. And I believe that we ordinary mortals can learn from what Musk has done. Though we may not succeed on the same scale, I think that by adopting similar attitudes, we are more likely to succeed in the arena of public opinion, as well as in the marketplace.
These are the attitudes I think set Musk apart:
He sets his sights on big, inspirational accomplishments.
From creating the first commercially feasible electric car to founding one of the first federally insured finance apps to colonizing Mars (two down, one to go), Musk tackles huge, awe-inspiring projects.
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One must operate in an altered reality zone to aspire to such outlandish goals, and fans of such people tend to be drawn into the same view of reality. The public focus becomes less about you and your challenges, and more about the transformational reality you are living in. It makes for exceptional stories, and storytelling is the basis of all media relations and reputation management.
For the rest of us: Find ways to add a bit of drama to what you’re doing by committing to doing something amazing. However small in scale, propose to accomplish something that has never been accomplished, and do it.
He produces results.
Musk has created, funded and/or leads one of the most valuable car companies in the world (Tesla), one of the most successful privately owned space exploration companies (SpaceX), and one of the world’s leading online payment services (PayPal). He founded his first company, Zip2, when he was 24 years old, and four years later sold his share in the company for $22 million.
His reputation would be non-existent without these results, of course. Simply setting your sights on big goals gets you nowhere with the media, or anyone else. You must accomplish them.
The lesson for the rest of us, I think, is to persevere. Don’t give up. Keep pushing. But, also work smart and be continually looking for new ways to solve the big problem you have committed to solving.
He is outspoken and speaks boldly.
As I noted in the opening of this article, Musk has been known to say outlandish—even cringeworthy—things. In fact, he spouts off unconventional, even crazy-sounding stuff all the time. He often appears to be completely spontaneous and unfiltered. It is part of his persona. And, as I have written about before, he fired his PR department, so there is no one to rein him in.
He also has deeply held, unconventional, controversial beliefs that he regularly espouses publicly, like calling out Alameda County for its Covid restrictions and threatening to fire Tesla employees who refuse to come back to the office.
Of course, we mere mortals can’t hope to sail against the prevailing winds of opinion as fearlessly as Musk and still make a living, but I think the lesson we can learn is to simply be honest in the way we speak—describe situations as we truly see them to clients, employees, the public and the media, and don’t say things we don’t believe, no matter how attractive it is to join the chorus.
He is quirky.
Whether it be doing a nerdy dance on the Tesla assembly line or walking into Twitter headquarters carrying a sink, quirkiness is ingrained into Musk’s personality. His quirky nature also means he is unafraid to publicly change his mind, which is, of course, the gravest error for normal people. But it is exactly his quirkiness that makes him a loveable billionaire. He comes across as childlike, innocent—basically well-meaning in his unconventionality.
What can business owners like us learn from this? Be authentic. Embrace your differences, what sets you apart, even if it does not seem attractive or “right.” Don’t cultivate affectations, but don’t be afraid to be who you are.
So, want to be loved by the media (and perhaps run a better business, as well)? Think about being like Elon: Think big. Accomplish much. Be honest and outspoken. And embrace the whole you, not just the antiseptic parts.
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Author: Jeff Bradford, Forbes Councils Member