Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
On a recent Wednesday, Tesla CEO and self-styled futurist Elon Musk called on Twitter for the government to “FREE AMERICA NOW.” He also tweeted, “Give people their freedom back!” On a Tesla earnings call later that day, Musk called stay-at-home orders “fascist.”
His words were tone deaf and, for someone with over 33 million Twitter handles to call on the government to end its lockdown, they were also dangerous. Musk is advocating for behavior that would lead to more Covid-19 related deaths in the US.
And while Musk did later tweet, “Yes, reopen with care & appropriate protection, but don’t put everyone under de facto house arrest,” we are not there yet. Experts have made it clear that the US needs to be able to test millions per week and effectively do contact tracing before the country can safely reopen or relax social distancing.
Currently, we are lagging in both of these crucial steps.
Add to this the recent predictions that the virus could stick around for up to two years and the oft-repeated warning that a second wave of Covid-19 is inevitable, and you start to wonder why anyone would advocate for ending the lockdown in the US before it is adequately prepared to do so.
Musk is perhaps frustrated because Tesla factories in New York and California, two states that have taken strong steps at keeping people at home, have been shuttered for the time being. Perhaps he thinks that he can tweet them open and help his car business. If this is the case, he is likely to be sorely mistaken. Americans are a lot smarter than Musk is revealing himself to be, and though Tesla reported a Q1 profit – a surprise to many – this week, I predict that Musk’s ill-advised tweets will negatively impact his business.
In fact, the California factory was only closed in March after appearing to operate in violation of a county order limiting activities of nonessential businesses for days. If Musk feels this strongly about opening up the country, then he should tell the public exactly how he plans on safely getting his factory workers back to work. CNBC recently reported, citing an internal message, that Tesla had to cancel plans to reopen on April 29 – the same day Musk went on his rant.
Re-opening the economy may put the lives of his workers at stake while Musk clearly has the resources to continue to isolate himself if he chooses. (And while Musk may think it would enrich him to get back up and running, re-opening too soon could play a part in spreading the virus, resulting in even more devastating economic damage.)
I take all of this personally because my husband, an emergency medicine physician, is on the front lines treating coronavirus patients. The more that people go out and spread this virus among themselves, the more they will put my husband’s life at risk when they then show up at his hospital seeking treatment. They will also put our daughter and me at risk, since my husband lives with and could easily spread the virus to us. Promoting lifting the lockdown when some hospitals are still struggling and in need of basic medical supplies further endangers the medical professionals who are already taking such extraordinary personal risks to care for the sick and try to end this pandemic. According to a report by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services last month, many of the country’s hospitals currently have “severe” and “widespread” shortages of medical supplies that are necessary to fight the pandemic.
To be clear, I understand the mounting need for people to get back to work and to return to their daily lives, but there has to be a reliable system in place – we need to listen to the health experts.
Most Americans are concerned about opening the country too soon, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
That’s why, instead of getting his business to reopen sooner and boosting his personal bottom line, I suspect Musk’s tweets may have the opposite effect. Investors may question his leadership, driving his stock price down. It’s happened before. In 2018, for example, when Musk seemingly mocked the Securities and Exchange Commission, shares in his company fell.
This was after shares already fell in the company shortly after the SEC charged Musk with fraud for making improper claims about his stock in tweets. Musk settled the fraud charges. As part of the settlement, he agreed to step down as chairman of Tesla.
In 2018 he also called a British rescue worker, who helped to save 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand, a “pedo guy.” After a defamation lawsuit was filed against Musk, his lawyers claimed that the term is commonly used in Musk’s home country of South Africa to describe a “creepy old man” and was “not an accusation of pedophilia.” Musk won the defamation trial.
While Musk certainly has a history of surviving ill-advised statements, his recent statements may have a bigger impact because they concern every American. No one should be confident in this man’s judgment anymore.