Elon Musk waded into the Ukraine-Russia war today with a peace plan that was… not very well received. It may have been a tactic to distract industry viewers from Tesla’s third-quarter production and delivery figures for 2022, which fell short of analyst expectations. But if so, it was a knackered tactic, and one of a growing series of missteps that left many in Musk’s sphere wondering what to do.
The most immediate issue was a four-part proposal that Musk tweeted to his 107 million followers on the platform, a proposal that involved recognizing Russia’s claims to the Crimean peninsula — which Russia had illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014 — and a Ukraine’s commitment to remain neutral and not join NATO. (Ukraine applied for accelerated accession to NATO late last week.)
Musk also proposed to rerun the mock referendum on Russia’s annexation of the occupied territories of Ukraine, the referendums held last month by Russian-installed officials in Ukraine (he suggested let “the people” decide) ; and ensuring Crimea’s access to water. (Ukraine had built a dam to cut off Crimea’s primary water supply in retaliation for Russia taking the Crimean peninsula eight years ago; the dam was blown up in February, two days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.)
Musk included a poll in this proposal, in which he asked whether people agreed or disagreed with his peace plan.
Reader, they didn’t. Citing “Russia vibes,” followers accused Musk of fundamentally misunderstanding what’s at stake in the war and pushing Russia propaganda.
Ukrainian diplomat Andrij Melnyk summed up the widespread sentiment when he tweeted to Musk: “Fuck off is my very diplomatic response to you @elonmusk.”
Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy weighed in, published his own poll and asked his far fewer 6.6 million followers which @elonmusk they like more, the one that’s pro-Ukraine or the one that’s pro-Russia.
Which @Elon Musk do you like more?
— олодимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) October 3, 2022
In an instant, Musk lost much of the goodwill he had generated in the spring by sending SpaceX’s Starlink terminals to Ukraine to improve Internet access in the country. (Starlink seems to have been) paid for this by the US government.)
In the meantime, Musk’s employees and shareholders should shake their heads as Musk once again dives somewhat nonchalantly into a tricky issue that is beyond his expertise. (From the time Musk announced his plans to buy Twitter in late April, it was clear that he didn’t have a good understanding of the various challenges the company was facing or a real plan to solve the problem.)
Musk is extraordinarily brilliant about many things, including his use of Twitter, which keeps him in the headlines despite Tesla doing away with any kind of traditional PR feature a long time ago.
Maybe he has good intentions. (It’s not always obvious.) Still, he’s undermining himself when he spews things on Twitter that he’s not an authority on.
Some argue it doesn’t matter; it does not affect sales; Tesla owners who still disapprove of Musk love their cars. But one day in the not-too-distant future, without a lack of companies chasing Tesla and a growing number of reasons for people to look to other manufacturers’ cars, that could change.
We’d be surprised if recruiting efforts aren’t already impacted by some of the headlines Musk has generated this year. While engineers in the past may have been rushing to work for Tesla or SpaceX because of their visionary leader, Musk’s various statements are likely to cause more of them to pause. (Is this man serious? Is he wise? Does he have any self-control?)
It’s inevitable that Musk, whose management style has been described as ruthless, showed no concern for the tech talent within Twitter, treated the company like a trinket he wanted, and then unabashedly throw it away.
Becoming a business icon has been very good for business, and Musk’s addiction to fame has helped him rise to the top of business, but there’s always a tipping point. What goes up must eventually come down, and by alienating unnecessarily large groups of people — in Ukraine, within Twitter, within his own customer and employee base, and beyond — he certainly speeds up this process.
For his own reasons, maybe that’s the way he meant it. If not, Musk can learn a lesson from Tesla’s own well-meaning, albeit flawed, self-driving software and stay in his lane.
As the account for the Kyiv Post newspaper tweeted earlier today, referring to Musk’s native South Africa: “Elon, you’re a cool dude and thanks for the Starlink, but it would be so great if you could vote for things you know about. We are not voting on apartheid and Nelson Mandela.”