The lesson from Elon Musk’s ‘funding secured’ mess is to never tweet

Never tweet. It’s a simple rule that you, me, and everyone who uses the hellish but seemingly indispensable social media platform should follow — if …

Never tweet. It’s a simple rule that you, me, and everyone who uses the hellish but seemingly indispensable social media platform should follow — if not exactly by the letter, then certainly in spirit. And there’s perhaps no greater example of that truism than the tweet sent one year ago today by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

“Am considering taking Tesla private at $420,” he tweeted on August 7th, 2018. “Funding secured.” Those few words — the last two specifically — created an entirely new fire for Musk to put out at a time when he was already mired in the self-described “hell” of Model 3 production. He did not, as it turned out, have any funding secured to do such a thing.

Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 7, 2018

Without rehashing the entire experience, which we documented in detailoverthelastyear, here are some of the direct consequences of that decision to answer Twitter’s eternal prompt of “What’s Happening?”

  • Forced out as Tesla chairman.
  • Paid a $20 million fine.
  • Tesla paid a $20 million fine.
  • Musk bought $20 million in Tesla stock to essentially make up for the fine.
  • Appointed two new independent directors to the company’s board.
  • Agreed to have his tweets reviewed by Tesla’s in-house counsel.

That last point is especially relevant because, in February, the SEC tried to hold Musk in contempt for violating that part of the settlement. This kicked off another stage of the battle, one that very publicly played out in court over the course of a few months. In the end, the two sides agreed to amend the settlement to be more specific about what Musk can and can’t tweet without approval — language he might have just violated again.

In this modern age, bad tweets abound. They’re met with ratios or reported to Twitter itself, and are often, ultimately, deleted. You don’t usually see such concrete evidence of how bad a tweet can break, though. Millions of dollars, months of headaches and distractions, and a proverbial door that the money cops can walk through every time they think Musk might have tweeted something that harms his company’s shareholders.

To be fair (I guess?) to Musk, these are the kinds of consequences he was trying to avoid by taking the company private! And for what it’s worth, the fact that he didn’t have “funding secured” from Saudi Arabia meant he ultimately avoided what certainly would have been immense scrutiny from… well, everyone, following the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Saudi Arabia does still own about 5 percent of Tesla’s stock that it bought on public markets, though it hedged that position earlier this year.) But if you’re going to announce that you have lined up Saudi Arabian cash to take your multibillion-dollar company private in the middle of the trading day, you should probably resist the siren song of tweeting, put down the phone, and wait until that money actually exists.

Which brings me back to my original point: “never tweet.” Again, I believe fully in the spirit of this rule as opposed to the letter of it, and often use it as a mantra to back myself off of any Twitter ledge I find myself on. I still tweet (sometimes a lot!). But more often than not, I think of the proverbial bullet Musk took, and do a survey of the resulting damage, tap “Cancel” and then “Delete.” As much as I love Twitter, we’d all probably be better off putting a bit of distance between it and our synapses anyway. Or, at the very least, burying it in our drafts while we cool off. We all might not have the fate of a massive company riding on the things that we publish on the platform, but if Musk’s messy year is good for anything, it’s reminding us how quickly things can get out of hand.

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