Elon Musk is just unbelievably bad at this!

I am so tired of all the Elon Musk obsession on twitter.  Honestly, the only difference I’ve noticed on twitter since he took over is that half the damn posts are about him.  That said, it is amazing to be watching a future business school disaster case study in real time.  I’ve never been part of the cult of Musk nor think he’s some amazing genius.  But, still, it really is just amazing how bad he is at this and how much money he’s burning.  Loved Charlie Warzel’s take:

Elon Musk has spent the past 12 years tweeting whatever comes into his mind, often without major negative consequences. That was before he owned the place. Now, less than two weeks after his $44 billion purchase, the world’s richest man is finding that his actions—which recently included tweeting a baseless conspiracy theory to Hillary Clinton about the assault on Paul Pelosi—may actually have consequences. Advertisers are fleeing, the employees remaining after a round of mass layoffs are alienated, and onlookers are completely vexed by a freewheeling approach that has coincided with a rise in hate speech on the platform, among other problems.

Musk’s fans see the billionaire as a visionary, but it’s worth noting that many casual observers—people whose only real understanding of Musk is as the guy who put the fancy electric cars on their streets—have also internalized the heuristic that he is Good at Business and the type of man who spends his waking moments dreaming of how to save humanity from its existential problems. But what the past two weeks demonstrate is that Musk is, at best, a mediocre executive—and undoubtedly a terrible, distracted manager.

Musk is obviously wildly financially successful, and the companies he owns have a reputation for taking futuristic-sounding ideas and dragging them into the present. But what Musk is showing us in real time is the folly of equating financial success with intellect, managerial savvy, and good judgment…

“The advertisers are gone because of his awful tweets,” Webb told me. “There’s no room for debate. He stated his intentions up front. He cared about advertisers and didn’t want them to leave and then he told us they’ve left.” Webb suggested to me that Musk’s now-deleted Paul Pelosi tweet was perhaps the most expensive tweet ever: It may have cost Twitter billions in advertising revenue. Companies including General Mills, Audi, and Pfizer are pulling their marketing from Twitter because they likely don’t want their brands to be associated with anything remotely scandalous. High-level executives—CMO types—are the ones ultimately deciding what these brands spend on Twitter, and “those people are, to a T, conflict-avoidant,” Webb said…

As bad as that sounds, Webb argues that the reality is worse: “What people might not understand is that the advertisers don’t need Twitter. They barely cared about it at all before Musk. The only reason those people cared about Twitter ads is because they had personal relationships with members of Twitter’s marketing team or because there are hundreds of Twitter account reps making them pay. And Elon may have fired those people.” Twitter is much smaller than rivals like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, after all.

With each passing day, Musk seems to be digging a deeper hole. This morning, to the dismay of many brand advertisers who strive to be apolitical, Musk used his 114-million-follower platform to endorse the Republican slate of candidates for tomorrow’s midterm elections. “The dude could’ve napped and saved billions of dollars,” Webb said. “Every decision he’s made has lost him money. It’s astonishing.”

I’m not going to Mastodon anytime soon because other than the excessive amount of Musk tweets, I’m still enjoying all the good takes and information.  I use plenty of other products (though not my pillow!) run by, I’m sure, awful CEO’s.  So, until twitter is awful, you’ll still see me there.  

Political messaging that works

I’m not even sure if there’s any social science on what I’m about to discuss.  Probably not, because it would be hard to do.  But, my anecdotally-based theory for a long time about negative political messaging is that effective negative campaign messages are those that work hand-in-glove with earned media (i.e., what journalists decide to cover).  Of course negative ads about inflation are effective now for Republicans because the media is talking about inflation all the time.  But, negative ads that run and fall into a void of earned media, I don’t think matter all that much. 

I think the classic case of this is the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign against John Kerry in 2004.  This started out as a relatively small political ad, but came to dominate earned media coverage about Kerry’s campaign. Once the media is doing your dirty work for you and running with the negative message, now you’re on to something.  

I think the far more typical pattern, and what you are seeing here in NC, is Cheri Beasley running ads about Budd’s questionable family business practices and Budd running ads about Beasley’s judicial decisions in favor of criminals (Budd is not so big on due process, apparently).  Anyway, I suspect there’s some value to these negative Beasley ads as they follow into a “soft on crime” theme that Republicans are broadly pushing– seemingly with some success– at the moment.  But, it’s not like there’s earned media stories on “Beasley’s questionable judicial record” or anything like that.  And I certainly have seen nothing to suggest the media writ large cares at all about Ted Budd’s family business dealings.

So, a long way of saying that the key for really successful negative attacks is that the media amplifies them for you, rather than having them disappear into the aether, the moment the 30 second ad is over.  

I loved Brian Beutler’s newsletter last week because it was the best extended treatment I’ve seen of just this phenomenon:

I got prompted on Twitter this week to weigh in on a debate over how well or poorly Democrats have prosecuted the case against Republicans, and what I came up with maps pretty neatly on the home stretch. 

It’s helpful as a starting point to distinguish the things Democrats do when they know the cameras are on from the things they do to attract the cameras. This distinction is a very close cousin of what people in the biz call paid media vs. earned or free media, but I think it’s easier to grasp without leaning on jargon, and I think it’s also more accurate, because there is overlap between the two (something that will become important as you read on). 

In the former category you have the whole gamut of things politicians do in an Official Capacity: Give speeches, run ads, host town halls, hold congressional hearings, etc.

In the latter category you have an infinite number of strategic and tactical things newsworthy people can do to become irresistible to news reporters: leak information, say controversial things, break character, flout norms, whatever. 

And the overlap actually brightens the distinction between these two categories. Almost all official speeches are dull and quickly forgotten, but every now and again one manages to capture national attention, whether it’s Donald Trump calling immigrants rapists and murderers or Barack Obama insisting there is no red or blue America, just the United States of America. (It’s no surprise that imprinting a speech on the American psyche requires having a distinct voice.)

Similarly, most campaign ads are forgettable but some capture things just so and we remember them years later. Here we see a similar distinction between, e.g., the Willie Horton ad (crude, racist, vile) and, e.g., this famous old Obama campaign ad (creative, stark, substantive). In Congress, most investigations and hearings aren’t media spectacles, but they can be, if the subject matter is of national import (the January 6 hearings) or if the party controlling Congress wants to create a spectacle (BENGHAZI). 

On the other side of the Venn diagram, we can tell a similar story. Most political stunts fall outside the realm of Normal Politics Stuff and lean heavily on affect. The Brooks Brothers Riot was a high-return stunt; Trump understood that he could always reset the news cycle by calling up Fox News and saying a different outrageous thing; rechristening french fries as freedom fries was a stunt. Bernie Sanders held the Senate floor for a zillion hours (giving a speech, yes, but to no real end) and it helped cement his place as the tribune of America’s political left. 

And what I’ve noticed—what I’d say about this midterm and the last couple decades of politics—is that Democrats excel at the official stuff, the by-the-books stuff, the textbook material, but have little sense for the alchemy of fostering news narratives, either through those normal channels or (more importantly) the abnormal ones…

Biden, on the other hand, said many of the right things (and a couple wrong ones) in his democracy speech, too, but the whole thing existed entirely outside the center of the Venn diagram, a staged event, where he knew the cameras would be rolling, the content of which wasn’t designed (or was poorly designed) to generate follow-on debate or backlash—the special sauce that attracts cameras instead of playing for ones that happen to be rolling. 

So what could Biden have done that might’ve made his democracy speech a source of ongoing coverage in these fateful days? A few thoughts:

  • He could have named candidates—enemies of democracy—who simply can’t be trusted with public office. Kari Lake and Mark Finchem of Arizona, Jim Marchant of Nevada, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Doug Mastriano and Dr. Oz of Pennsylvania/New Jersey, Herschel Walker of Georgia, Don Bolduc of New Hampshire. He could’ve quoted Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial nominee Tim Michels who recently told supporters, ““Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor.”
  • After the speech, I left the television on in the background and heard (I think?) Claire McCaskill say something like, ‘I think Biden gave that speech because he’s afraid for America.’ So one option would have been for Biden to say “I’m afraid for America.” Or, “I’m afraid of what will happen if this speech doesn’t break through; I’m afraid that if people who want to tear down American democracy win power on Tuesday, we will never have another fair national election.” A sitting president saying that, as vulnerably as any president has ever said anything, would have been big news.
  • I was spitballing with a friend before the speech and mused that another way Biden could make sure reporters didn’t gloss over the content would be to indict media directly. So at the risk of doing the Fan Fiction Speech thing, he could’ve said, “Republicans want to rig all future elections so that they never lose control again, so that they can control your lives without leaving you any recourse. What’s worse, the bothsides media knows all this, they know gas prices will rise and fall, but the permanent stakes of this election are existential. They won’t tell you that, though. They’re scared—of losing access, of Republican retribution, of being accused of bias. And shame on them, because there’s nothing more important ahead of any election than one side encouraging terrorism against the other, of lying about the results, and openly plotting to steal power going forward, and there’s nothing more incumbent upon as as citizens to rise up and vote against them. The bothsides media will say I’m just trying to change topics from the economy, as if I’m ashamed of the lowest unemployment rate in history. They will go seek out Republicans who say Biden is just trying to scare people so they don’t vote their pocketbooks. Well trust me when I say they are lying to you, and people who will lie to you as a professional strategy—whether they’re elected Republicans or the bothsides media—don’t have your best interests at heart. Not for your pocketbook, not for your freedom.”

These are just ideas. I obviously can’t know if they would’ve “worked” either in the narrow sense of making the news media grapple with the content of the speech, or in the larger sense of turning the election around. But they’re gambits devised to make the speech filter down from the dais to television news to social media and ultimately the water cooler and dinner table. Fact check: Is Kari Lake an enemy of democracy? Why? The president is scared? What’s going on? He attacked the media? How dare he! But does he have a point? (Yes, reader, he does.)…

With four days left, Democrats are unlikely to stunt their way into a more favorable media environment and it would be a miracle (or catastrophe) if another significant development managed to change the thematic core of the election. But however the returns shake out, I hope Democratic officials start thinking about this missing element of party politics, and start gaming the bad rules of national political media as aggressively as Republicans do. That can mean more impassioned Obama speeches about Social Security, or more brandishing of abortion-ban horror stories, or a more cavalier attitude toward dated political norms that hamstring the liberal response to rising fascism. But it should be something different. 

I want them to try because, like Joe Biden, I’m scared for the country.

On a related note, I mentioned some time ago that the abortion horror stories we now hear on an almost daily are so amenable to political ads they practically write themselves (“I almost died from my miscarriage because Republican politicians made me go to another state!”).  And, yet, I’ve seen nothing like this. Just “Ted Budd is extreme on abortion.”  Give me stories!  The people want stories.  

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