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Article • 07/03/2023

Elon Musk gets four times more negative coverage than 49 other leading CEOs – combined

At the end of 2022, we wondered what we’d find if, instead of measuring corporate reputations, we measured their CEO’s. We selected 50 of the most well-known Chief Executives, CEOs like Apple’s Tim Cook, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella or GM’s Mary Barra – heavy hitters who not only manage enormous companies, but whose actions and thought leadership often grab the media spotlight.

We analysed their media coverage (online news, broadcast, podcasts etc.) across hundreds of topics core to their companies’ reputation, ranging from emerging tech investments to corporate culture, ESG, and governance. While we knew these CEOs attract attention, and that their reputation is often tied to that of the companies they run, what we saw in the data from the Signal AI 500 tells us that both literally and figuratively, when it comes to media coverage there isn’t any CEO quite like Elon Musk.

We expected Musk to be prominent, we didn’t quite realize the scale. While he’s always been comfortable with polarising statements and provocation, his wild ride with Twitter left Musk’s scent all over the news. Comparing him to all fifty of these chief executives, Musk represented 50% of all mentions, thus receiving as many as the rest combined. As a matter of fact, in 2022 his coverage not only trumped theirs, it was more than four times that of Kanye West—who got no shortage of attention—throughout the year. Elon is the celebrity executive whose debatable jokes and SEC-triggering tweets got editors steaming, and whose holidays became tabloid sensations. However, for better or for worse, they seem to have become enemies with benefits.

Elon Musk's negative reputation score

Reputationally, Musk is now crash testing the axiom that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” When compared to his 49 peers, Musk represented over 80% of all negative mentions, meaning out of every 100 negative media stories out there about a CEO on any given topic, 80 will specifically talk about Musk. In themes like Governance, Executive Leadership, or Culture & Talent, his share of negative chatter reached a whopping 91% of the aggregated conversation across all 50 execs combined. Let that sink in. Frankly, there may have never been a better time to be another unpopular CEO, because everyone’s obsessed with Elon.

There are consequences to this, and the axiom above no longer holds true. Data shows that Musk’s reputation is harming the reputations of the brands and companies he helms. Tesla and Twitter, in particular, are each seeing their reputational trendlines dipping. Even though they should command higher scores based on the attention they receive, within their respective industries’ reputation rankings, Tesla only stands 9th among 14 auto companies and Twitter 20th out of 23 tech companies in 2022. While Musk isn’t the only culprit (Tesla’s self-driving scandal or Twitter’s constant moderation hiccups are having an impact, for example), he is bringing an unwelcome spotlight further creating unnecessary cracks in their reputation. In Twitter’s case, its massive debt load, the need to raise incremental equity, and advertisers to attract, this predicament does not bode well for its financial future when the CEO is making matters worse.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for “Mr Tweet” and his holdings. SpaceX for example remains a very credible actor in a sector it is transforming (still ranked 3rd most reputable defense & aerospace company), and Elon Musk himself still gets credit in areas where he’s built his image over the years, most notably in topics related to innovation and sustainability. These are important (and winning) storylines in corporate reputation today that many competitors look at with envy.

Elon Musk effect on SpaceX, Twitter and Tesla

Unfortunately, now that he owns the most expensive personal megaphone in media history, it’s hard to see a scenario where he will be able to restore his relationship with the media world, which will likely signal more turbulences ahead for the companies he runs. If Musk could take his fiduciary responsibility pill, stay focused on his strengths (the future forward vision and a sense of possibility) and delegate his weaknesses (the unfiltered operations and the political bickering), maybe he could get back to simply being the brilliant jerk people dream of going to Mars with. For now, a little birdie tells us he might just keep on tweeting…

This article was originally published on Forbes CMO.

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