10 Things Elon Musk Should Do

If he wants to save Twitter, not ruin it

Illustration featuring the Twitter bird symbol and a blue check mark.
The Atlantic

Twitter is dying before our eyes, and not of natural causes. Its present owner, Elon Musk, is killing it. Ego, impulsiveness, and lack of self-discipline are the proximate causes of its decline. The company is alienating advertisers, shedding valuable users, and attracting the anonymous trolls that Musk supposedly wanted to discourage.

Is it too late to change course? Here are a few steps that might help.

1) Hire a proper CEO with relevant business experience.

Twitter’s new owner declared a list of goals. He wants the platform to be accurate, to be respected, and to flourish as a business; to support free speech but not impersonation, fraud, or racist abuse. He imagined that those things would all be easy to achieve together. They are not. Pretty plainly, the present owner has no idea how to do what he wants to get done. Maybe nobody could do it. But a great start would be to hire a management team that has been thinking hard about these and other challenging problems for longer than just the past 11 days.

2) Stop insulting the customers.

A big part of Musk’s motive for buying Twitter seems to have been his dislike and resentment of Twitter’s most active users, those badged with a blue check mark. Feelings are feelings—but once an investor buys a business, they’re wise to set aside feelings and think analytically. A usual rule of thumb is that 20 percent of a business’s customers generate 80 percent of the business’s activity. Twitter is probably even more lopsided than that. However culturally and ideologically irritating Musk finds his core 20 percent of customers, he needs them. He did not need them before he bet $44 billion on Twitter, but he needs them now. Actions that alienate and frighten core users don’t make business sense.

3) Stop threatening the advertisers.

Musk’s big practical idea for saving his crashing company is to appear to threaten advertisers with retaliation by his political allies if they withdraw their dollars. Among the flaws in this strategy is that it warns potential advertisers not to start advertising with Twitter in the first place. Another flaw: The “advertise or Congress will punish you” strategy implicitly concedes that there is no business case for advertising on Twitter, that an ad on his site is at best another partisan political contribution, at worst a surrender to extortion. Maybe some money can be extracted from some corporate advertisers this way, for a time—but at grave risk of branding Twitter forever as a place where dollars are lost, not made, and choking off any path to advertising growth.

4) Stop amplifying and empowering conspiracy-theory mongers.

Musk’s troubles at Twitter veered into the red zone when he cited in a tweet last week a story from a website notorious for such grotesque fabrications as reporting that Hillary Clinton was dead and was represented in a 2016 TV debate by a body double. The story Musk shared fantastically claimed that Paul Pelosi had incurred his recent injuries not as a result of a home invasion and assault, but through a gay-sex encounter gone wrong. The story was ugly and stupid and vicious. For Musk to share it delivered a warning that Twitter was now under management that was both bigoted and gullible. Who wants to identify their brand with a social-media site that allows itself to become Grand Central for Weirdos?

5) Delete the CEO’s account and hire PR professionals.

Musk is following the communications strategy of Donald Trump: When an idle and possibly offensive impulse flits through your brain, don’t wait, don’t think, don’t take advice, but instead immediately share it with your millions of followers—except that Musk has a real financial stake in the platform, so then he finds out that he just did catastrophic harm to his business and reputation. For a fraction of his investment, experienced PR professionals could communicate what he genuinely needs to say—and stay silent on the things he doesn’t need to say. Effective PR professionals urge their clients to assess carefully: Why are you saying this? Effective PR professionals help their clients appreciate that because I was goaded by an account named after cat excrement is not a valid answer for the business owner.

6) Don’t fire people until you understand what they do for your company.  

Last weekend, Musk fired roughly half of Twitter’s staff on a whim. Now he’s trying to hire some of them back. That’s no way to run anything. Take a month. Find out who does what. There’s always fat to trim, but if you don’t know where that fat is, you end up doing self-harm. A CEO is only as good as his information—information often held by others. Listening only to the angry emotions from inside your own hormonal system is no way to run a candy store, let alone a company of global reach. Understand the business before you make cuts. And, of course, you must pay terminated employees the money you owe them, for your own sake as well as theirs.

7) Don’t mock the competition. Learn from it.

Musk’s antics have driven hundreds of thousands of Twitter core users to explore alternatives. Musk responded by tweeting juvenile wordplay about the Mastodon app (“Masterbatedone”), where many of his users are setting up accounts as a post-Twitter Plan B. If you’re losing market share to a rival, it’s important to understand why. Winners respect their competitors. Bitter, entitled grievance is the sound emitted by losers.

8) Remember Michael Jordan’s advice: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Twitter is a politically polarized company. A boutique living can always be made by marketing to one side or another, in the way that, for example, the brand Black Rifle Coffee markets itself to gun enthusiasts. But major multinational companies want to sell to big markets, not niche ones. If Musk now likes Republicans, fine. But write them a campaign donation; don’t put a sign on the door telling Democrats to take their business elsewhere.

9) Quit trolling your users—and take another look at point No. 5.  

If Twitter dies, Musk’s big mouth will be approximately 100 percent of the reason.

10) Stop telling people they should give you $8 or get lost.

It makes you sound like an angry squeegee man. Media folk are like everybody else in this respect: They’ll pay for what’s useful. If you want their money, don’t panhandle for it. Earn it.