Elon Musk has become the most talkative and talked-about CEO on the internet. It’s made him more famous — and possibly dangerous, to himself and to Tesla.
His active, sometimes frenzied, social-media commentary is unlike that of his fellow corporate titans, particularly his willingness to engage with fans and detractors alike.
While his engagement with the public helped cultivate his image as a real-life Tony Stark, Musk’s willingness to take risks with his words online, to move fast and break the internet, sometimes blows up in his face.
The tweets abruptly announcing a plan to take the company private, which sparked an SEC investigation, have critics on Wall Street and elsewhere drawing the conclusion that internet fame isn’t worth the price.
Musk’s skyrocketing fame
In 2018, Musk’s public persona and his emergence among the world’s most famous names seem to have taken on a new dimension.
His activity on social media — Twitter, in particular, though his now-shuttered Instagram account also made news — has gone through the roof, both in terms of the frequency and volume of his posts and the number of interactions (shares, likes, replies and comments) that those posts have generated, according to a MarketWatch analysis of his tweets.
So far in 2018, Musk has racked up 21.56 million Twitter interactions from his account, versus 7.76 million in the same period in 2017, a stark contrast even accounting for a steady growth in his following and in the volume of tweets.
Similarly, search interest in Musk has exploded, according to Google Trends data. Search interest has run so hot that Musk has outranked some of the most famous CEOs out there — Amazon.com Inc.’s
Jeff Bezos, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s
Warren Buffett, Apple Inc.’s
Tim Cook and Facebook Inc.’s
Mark Zuckerberg — for the past four months on Google Trends.
The biggest interest-generating event of all appears to have been a mishmash of Tesla news and a peek at outer-space possibilities — Google search interest in Musk reached its highest point of all time for a three-day period in early February.
On Feb. 6, Space X launched its new Falcon Heavy rocket, and its payload, a red Tesla Roadster and the now-iconic “Starman” dummy astronaut driver. Musk’s tweet about the launch and Starman generated 484,000 likes and 173,000 retweets, his top tweet of the year so far by interactions.
A day later, Tesla reported fourth-quarter earnings, which initially boosted the stock but ultimately saw it trade nearly 9% lower on the first trading day following the results, as analysts remained concerned about the Model 3 production ramp.
A few months later, in July, Musk sparked controversy with a tweet calling a British diver who helped rescue a group of boys from a Thai cave a “pedo.” Musk apologized for the tweet, but that controversy drew new oxygen this week, with Musk wondering aloud why the diver hadn’t followed through on a lawsuit threat.
At the time of the initial diver tweet, Gene Munster of Loup Ventures called on Musk to take a “Twitter sabbatical.” Munster said that it would make sense that some of the events that generate the most Google searches and social-media interactions about Musk, the man, aren’t necessarily always Tesla-related.
“He gives people a glimpse of the future, and people cannot get enough of that,” Munster said.
Musk not only did not follow Munster’s advice, echoed by many, to stay off Twitter, but went on to tweet in the middle of the trading day on Aug. 7 that he was “considering” taking Tesla public at $420 a share.
The phrase that followed — “funding secured” — irked investors and triggered a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation that seems to be moving at a faster-than-typical clip.
Then, this week, after doubled down on the pedophilia allegation, suggesting during a heated exchange on Twitter that it was telling he had not yet been sued, it was reported that the diver is indeed preparing to sue Musk for libel.
Other memorable Twitter moments involving Musk include his April Fools’ Day tweets about Tesla going bankrupt, which came during Tesla’s worst month in seven years and prompted a 5% stock selloff on Monday, April 2. (MarketWatch has chronicled key Musk moments on Twitter going back to his first tweet in a timeline — click to view it.)
Signs that Musk’s huge workload might be taking a toll on his mental health surfaced on his Twitter feed as early as 2016, when he offhandedly mentioned Ambien, a medication used to treat insomnia. Such speculation has grown impossible to ignore in 2018, has led to analysts questioning Musk’s leadership style, and has also triggered stock declines.
On Aug. 16, not long after the “funding secured” tweet, Musk gave an emotional interview with the New York Times in which he described an “excruciating” year. It marked another high-water mark for Google search interest in Musk, and another big stumble for Tesla shares.
‘He’s not going anywhere’
It would be ideal for Musk and for Tesla if the CEO took time to “take care of himself” and to find a chief operating officer for Tesla, but “the reality is that he’s not going to take a break,” Munster said.
“He’s not going anywhere. The company needs him, and he knows it,” he said. Besides, Munster continued, “he’s too proud a person to let it fail.” In a year’s time, Tesla might have a COO, if it can find the ideal person, Munster said.
Mike O’Rourke, a strategist with JonesTrading who keeps in touch with fund managers, traders and other investment professionals, said that the tenor of his conversations with such pros about Tesla hasn’t changed. Those who believe in Musk and the Tesla story continue to believe, and those who don’t criticize both the man and the company, he said.
Currently, the bears who doubted Musk “feel a bit more emboldened,” but the divide, which is also stark in Tesla sell-side analyst coverage, hasn’t changed significantly, he said.
The best thing Musk could do is “take the focus off himself and put it back in the business,” O’Rourke said. One needs only look at the different market reactions to Tesla’s first-quarter and second-quarter post-results conference calls with analysts to see how it would be beneficial, he said.
Tesla shares tanked after the first-quarter conference call, dubbed “bizarre” by one analyst, and rose after a more poised Musk apologized on the second-quarter call.
In the more recent call, Musk acted “like you’d expect a CEO to act,” O’Rourke said. The stock remained on an upward trajectory until the going-private tweet.
For Karl Brauer, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book, it isn’t surprising that 2018 is the year social-media and search interest in Musk, the man, have surged. The Model 3, a sedan aimed at least on paper at the masses, was launched in 2017, but that was a “Tesla launch,” Brauer said — an opportunity to showcase a vehicle ahead of significant production and sales.
“The Model 3 was not meaningful to most people until the start of the year,” and heightened concerns about delayed Model 3 production didn’t fully emerge until the past six to eight months, he said.
“Now you have a large swath of the U.S. population interested in Tesla,” and waiting for cheaper Model 3s, priced at $35,000, to come along. (Only pricier versions of the sedan are readily available.)
Asked what Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, is up to these days, many people would draw a blank, but most would be able to say something about a recent Musk exploit, Brauer said.
“He is, to a lot of people, somewhere between heir apparent to Steve Jobs,” as a charismatic, innovative leader, “and the whole Tony Stark thing.”
Terrence Horan contributed to this article.