Can Twitter survive the Musk-induced damage to its reputation?
This slow-moving car wreck that is Twitter has turned me into a curious rubbernecker – strictly professionally of course. I find myself craning my neck from moment to moment to assess the damage and divine whether there will be any survivors. So often in the near aftermath of such crashes, there remain way more questions than answers.
First, a confession: I’m not a big Twitter fan. While I signed up for the platform not long after its launch, I never posted a single tweet nor clicked to follow anyone. That’s not because I didn’t think that Twitter provided some utility, but for me personally, the platform was more or less a digitized version of talk radio, full of voices and opinions I didn’t really care to hear. I even resisted the siren lure of social voyeurism, a chance to peek into the lives of celebrities and athletes and people named Kardashian.
Mostly, by the time Twitter came along, I had reached my social media saturation point. LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram (and OK, an occasional dalliance with SnapChat and Tik-Tok) fill way more of my waking day than I care to admit. The fact is I really don’t need one more distraction, especially one that could easily turn into an obsession. (Quick caveat: We do believe as an agency that the platform can be a valuable tool for our clients to reach important targets.)
Twitter’s stature and relevance
Obviously, there are a number of people who don’t share my view. At last count, at least 400 million Twittees – real and fake humans among them – form its ostensible user base. Those numbers represent a sizeable force, though are a far cry from the mega stature of other platforms like Facebook (close to 3 billion monthly users), Instagram (2 billion) and LinkedIn (800 million).
Even so, Twitter has evolved into an important cultural, social, business, entertainment and even political institution. Companies, politicians and no less than governments around the world turn to Twitter to make official announcements. And Twitter often beats those pronouncements to the punch. It was on Twitter, for example, that the news broke about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the breakup of Tom and Gisele, among other scoops over the years. Journalists have embraced Twitter in a significant way, and PR folks like us are using the platform comprehensively to connect efficiently with reporters and build relationships with them.
And Twitter is perhaps unmatched in putting a finger to the wind to see which way the wind is blowing. Reactions on the platform to breaking events range from the heartfelt to the shocked to the snarky, giving us a window into our collective zeitgeist.
As the events in the Twittersphere continue to unfold, it’s exactly Twitter’s elevated role in our national conversations that has so many concerned. Until recently, Twitter by all accounts has endeavored to manage its business in responsible, conscientious and scrupulous ways, owing to the power and influence at its disposal. It has sought strenuously to find balance between the rights of free expression among its users and the potential danger inherent in some speech. Twitter’s user base grew dramatically during the Covid pandemic, even as many of the most popular tweets contained erroneous – and potentially dangerous – assertions. A study in 2018 found that falsehoods on the platform were 70% more likely to be retweeted than truthful ones.
Twitter may not have always made the right decision when it comes to managing the flow of content on the platform, but we always felt a sense of comfort that it was paying attention to these matters and addressing them in a fair and thoughtful way.
Despite assurances from Elon Musk that Twitter is not about to be turned into a “hellscape,” there’s growing evidence to suggest that that is exactly what is happening. The incidence of hate speech, including antisemitic, racist and homophobic tweets, is on the rise, and there’s been no discernible reaction from Twitter’s C-suite that it’s a matter of concern. Musk himself personally retweeted a bizarre conspiracy theory related to the attack on Paul Pelosi. And in an unprecedented departure from how these social platforms have been run, the new “Head Twit” (as he apparently now calls himself) even tweeted encouragement to his users that they vote Republican in the election.
We may have taken for granted that social platforms have heretofore been run by grownups without ostensible agendas – at least political ones. That appears to be changing, especially now without the guardrails that a shareholder-owned Twitter had in place. And so, perhaps predictably, the pendulum has begun swinging away from Twitter.
MIT reports that as many as 1 million Twitter users have deleted their accounts, including several high-profile, celebrity users. Perhaps more concerning for the company, major advertisers are abandoning (at least temporarily) the platform for safer confines. General Motors said it is suspending its Twitter advertising, and IPG, the parent of a network of large ad agencies whose clients include the likes of American Express, Coca-Cola, J&J and many other top brands, also announced it advises a pause on advertising on the platform. Others have followed suit. (We at Hodges also have put our client advertising on a temporary hold.)
It’s tempting to wonder whether all this bedlam could result in a new player rising like a phoenix from Twitter’s dust. But that’s not so easy when you consider how long it took Twitter to build its user base brick by brick over close to two decades. But upstart and rival platforms like Discord and Mastodon are reporting an uptick in memberships, so who knows? Patience with the platform will last only so long, and Musk’s co-investors and funders are expecting some return on the $44 billion investment.
Reverse trend: no ESG?
What’s most curious to me through all this is the irony of the direction in which Twitter is headed. At a time when more and more companies are putting an emphasis on ESG – policies that reflect a commitment to the environment, social issues (such as diversity and human rights) and a governance posture that is transparent and equitable – Twitter is moving quickly in a direction away from a trend that so much of corporate America has embraced.
Finally, there is of course an underlying public relations element to this situation. Reputation management lies on the center line of the road ahead for Musk and Twitter. In the past, Musk has paid little regard to the ways in which public relations can be harnessed to burnish a company’s reputation. This is the man, after all, who completely disbanded Tesla’s internal PR department two years ago, apparently believing that the power of his brand could overcome any potential smears on the company’s reputation. Despite Twitter’s strong brand position up until a few weeks ago, the new management team cannot rely on a reputation that it did not build, particularly as it abandons so many of the values that made the platform what it is.
So, the initial collision part of this evolving episode is over, and let’s imagine now that the ambulance is on its way to the hospital. In time, we’ll likely see if the patient is strong and receptive enough to respond to treatment.