Written by • Published 20th July 2018 • 4 minute read

Written by Simerhan Hunjunt & Miranda Drew

In a time of Twitter, trolls and clickbait, headline fodder is no longer confined to the life and times of celebrities, CEOs and companies. Social media statuses can be front page news and what was once an opinion expressed in a private post can now cost you your job, your reputation – and can even be grounds for a libel lawsuit.

Exhibit A: Elon Musk, billionaire, founder of Tesla and SpaceX and all-round Twitter-fanatic, faced criticism earlier this month for his attempt to assist in the Thai cave rescue with a custom-built submarine.  After one of the leaders of the rescue mission said the submarine was “not practical”, the general consensus on Twitter was that Musk’s invention and subsequent Twitter posts were all one big PR stunt – something we discussed on our blog last week.

In an attempt to set the record straight, Musk turned to social media again – this time, sharing an email exchange with Dick Stanton, one of the British caving experts called in for the rescue. Musk vied to ‘prove’ he was encouraged by officials to build the submarine, while simultaneously aiming to discredit the Thai provincial governor, describing him as “not [being] the subject matter expert.” The tweets made national headlines, as did Musk’s less-than-gracious behaviour.

Unfortunately, last weekend Musk took to social media yet again and faced a fresh wave of criticism – and a potential lawsuit.

This time, Musk came under fire for lashing out at one of the divers involved in the rescue, dubbing him a “pedo guy.” The remark came after the diver in question, Vern Unsworth, said in an interview with CNN that Musk should “stick his submarine where it hurts” and labelled it a “PR stunt” that “had absolutely no chance of working” because the billionaire, “had no conception of what the cave passage was like”.

As the heated exchange made international headlines, Musk was questioned by his followers about the evidence he had for the uncomfortable notion of a “pedo guy” rescuing 12 young boys from a secluded cave in Thailand. He responded with an insensitive “bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”

Musk yesterday issued an apology and said his now-deleted Tweets were “spoken in anger” and “the fault is mine and mine alone”. However, he gave no insight into why he made such damaging claims and given that the screenshots and online articles live on, a court case may still have legs.

But Musk is not the only influential figurehead whose use of social media has left many shocked and offended. President Trump, fellow billionaire and notorious Twitter-addict is another well-known example of how social media platform have a powerful impact on reputation.

While the examples are many and varied, one memorable Tweet that caused significant condemnation of the United States’ President contained an attack on US news anchor, Mika Brzezinski’s appearance back in June 2017.

After Brzezinski and her fellow host Joe Scarborough criticised President Trump on a segment, saying that he was “destroying the country,” Trump retaliated with two tweets that referred to Scarborough as “Psycho Joe” and Brzezinski as having a “low I.Q” and “was bleeding badly from a face-lift.” The tweets led to uproar about the objectification of women and did nothing to further Trump’s already dented reputation – the link between personal and professional is inextricable.

Just last week, Trump’s feud with Sadiq Khan made headlines as he visited the United Kingdom. The resentment was initially sparked by a Tweet from the President in June 2017 after London terrorist attacks in which he took Khan’s comments out of context. “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’”

Fuel was added to the fire when The Sun interviewed President Trump ahead of his visit to London. “Take a look at the terrorism that is taking place. Look at what is going on in London. I think he [Mr Khan] has done a very bad job on terrorism,” Trump has been reported as saying. Fellow politician David Lammy took to Twitter to defend Khan, and the whole story ended up leading the news yet again.

Trump’s use of social media has been widely criticised by the public, by media in America and abroad, and even by a member of his own party. But despite the backlash, the American President has expressed no intention of stopping, describing his use of social media as that of a “modern-day presidential.”

As social media commentaries continue to fuel headlines from America to Australia, causing scandals and resulting in resignations, it’s important for people in positions of influence to tread – and Tweet – carefully. One misguided tweet can tarnish a carefully-built reputation faster than you can hit delete – screenshots are forever.  So, remember, think before you press ‘send’ – social media may be accessible, but it is a public communications channel just like any other.

If you would like to know how PR can help to protect your reputation then please get in touch with us today.