"If someone is going to try to blackmail me with advertising, blackmail me with money, go f**k yourself .... Go … f**k … yourself. Is that clear? I hope it is.” That was Elon Musk's blunt comeback this week to the big-name advertisers boycotting X, and once again, he set the media world ablaze. But there's more to this story than just that retort.
What has flown under the radar is the question posed by interviewer Andrew Ross Sorkin that set the stage for Musk's response. Sorkin kicked things off by asking about Musk's recent trip to Israel. The question seemed straightforward enough:
"What was that trip like? Obviously, you know that there’s a public perception that that was part of an apology tour, if you will. This had been said online. There was all of the criticism, there were advertisers leaving.”
Lesson in PR: Watch for questions that have adversarial undertones
This question was more loaded than it appeared. For starters, the phrase "apology tour" subtly hinted that Musk's trip was less about genuine interest and more about image control. It's like saying, "Do you actually have an interest in international crises, or was your trip simply a way to score PR points?"
The second zinger in Sorkin's question lay in the presumption that Musk had something to apologize for in the first place. If you’ll entertain a quick tangent: this whole boycott stemmed from a bogus report from Media Matters suggesting that major advertisers' content was popping up on X alongside Nazi posts. Turns out, their methodology was faulty at best, the results were effectively debunked, and Musk is rightfully suing.
Lesson in PR: how NOT to respond to adversarial reporter questions
Back to the point: journalists and interviewers have a knack for slipping in these sly digs. They can dress up a question as a simple summary of the “popular opinion,” but this is disingenuous. Underneath, there can be a skewed take or, worse, a maligning of someone's business, their associates, or their character.
Elon Musk has been in the media's crosshairs ever since he took over Twitter last year, so he's become pretty savvy at dealing with hostility from journalists. From my own PR work with other tech companies, I've seen that a lot of CEOs just don't have Musk's knack for this stuff.
Here's what usually happens when they're thrown an antagonistic question:
They pretend they didn’t hear the hidden jabs, which makes them look out of touch.
They dodge the real issue and ramble on about something unrelated.
They lose their cool and end up looking unhinged.
Given Musk's colourful language choice, did he lose it too? Not really. His response is a lesson in PR: answer an adversarial question in a straightforward and unfiltered manner – he didn't sidestep or muddy the waters. He confronted the underhanded parts of the question head-on.
Musk clarified that his trip to Israel had been scheduled well before any of the controversy arose. When you've got the facts on your side, you might as well pound the facts.
He openly acknowledged that advertisers willing to blackmail X were free to withdraw from the platform, and candidly remarked that if such departures were to spell the end for the company, then the world would clearly see shady and unhinged corporate virtue signalling as the cause. He put his finger on the thing that no one wanted to talk about. Still, many reporters might not want to go there... but the judge, or everyone on Earth can now decide for themselves whether it's true).
Lesson in PR: answer an adversarial question by being genuine
Musk has been batting away the same adversarial narrative about X and himself for ages now, and that effort is now brewing into understandable frustration. But I'm not convinced that frustration was at the root of why Elon swore. I believe it was a deliberate tactic to get people to pay very close attention to what he was saying, by blowing up the framework of the conversation.
He stayed put, got to the real issue in a direct (albeit a crude) way, and tackled Sorkin's (passive aggressive) question about the advertiser boycott in the most aggressive manner possible.
By the way, for those who think the crudity was beyond the pale and that executives should never get down into the gutter, I'll say that this observation generally holds true. There are exceptions.
Dropping f-bombs in sophisticated company (in this case, an on-stage interview in front of the biggest titans of USA's business world) was clearly a deliberate tactic to shock and change the framework. By saying what he said as aggressively as he could say it, the thought being communicated here was "Pay attention to this. If there's only one thing you take away from this on-stage interview, it's this thing."
For better or for worse, we live in a society where people now interject expletives thoughtlessly into everyday speech at home, with friends, and yes, sometimes (though more rarely) at work. Rarest of all is in an on-stage media interview that will be watched by millions. When someone goes there, they want you to pay attention.
If you're in the tech world, brush-ups with the press can happen - and depending on what's going on in your industry or at your specific company, you might face some heat (fairly or unfairly). You might face a barrage of questions, some tough, some downright unfair, often rooted in misconceptions or false narratives.
Developing the skill to cut through these loaded questions and zero in on what really matters doesn't happen overnight – it's an art that's honed over time. But there's something invaluable about learning by watching how the pros handle the heat.
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