Elon Musk stirred up plenty of chatter last week when he tweeted that he was buying English football club Manchester United. Hours later, Musk revealed that it was in fact a long-running joke on Twitter and that he wasn't buying any sports teams. Musk, however, added: "Although, if it were any team, it would be Man U. They were my favourite team as a kid."

Shares of Manchester United, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, rose by about 17% in premarket trading last Wednesday after the Tesla chief joked about it, CNBC said . Musk would have had to fork out approximately US$2 billion if he were to purchase the football club, CNBC added.

Meltwater's statistics from 14 to 19 August showed that the number of mentions surrounding Manchester United and Musk rose 3.24k in Southeast Asia - a football frenzy region - peaking on 17 August. Among the list of trending keywords were "club", "elon musk put chips", "irreverent tweets", "tim olahraga", "joke", and "klub sepak bola". Most of the chatter came from Indonesia followed by Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. Interestingly, most of the sentiments were neutral (75%) and 15% were positive. Only 9% were negative.

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Some fans on Twitter thought it would be a good move by Musk, adding that Tesla could even become one of the club's sponsors. Meanwhile, there were also some fans who were wary of his tweet, with some on Singapore's Hardware Zone calling him a troll while others questioned if he could be trusted especially after the Twitter saga.

Musk is known for posting strange and sometimes cryptic tweets, making it hard to tell if he is joking or not. In April, for example, he tweeted about buying Coca-Cola to "put the cocaine back in". The Tesla chief also caused plenty of online buzz when he declared that he was buying Twitter, only to back out of the US$44 billion deal and accuse Twitter of misrepresenting user data.

Musk cries wolf again

While it is common for CEOs to have their own voice and personality online, Musk seems to have taken it a step further, tweeting out random thoughts and statements while leaving everyone to decipher his intentions. Hence, this begs the question if Musk's tweets are still trustworthy. "Given Musk's reputation, anything he says needs to be taken with a soccer field full of salt," Shouvik Prasanna Mukherjee, chief creative officer, APAC at Golin, said. Having said that, Mukherjee explained that the Tesla chief is still the world’s richest man with a cult-like following across the globe, so when he tweets people, and stocks, react.

You still bother to write about it, and I care to comment. Musk is relevant, authentic to his self and hence, impactful.

While it is true that most CEOs are the face of the brand, Mukherjee said Musk is the bigger brand and there is a method in his madness as he admittedly does not want to try to adhere to a CEO template.

"He is a disruptor by nature and by design. While that has proven to be pathbreaking for sustainable mobility or space travel, it has often led to trouble for stakeholders of his and other companies. And this unpredictability adds to the enigma and attraction of Brand Musk," Mukherjee explained.

Similarly, Peter De Kretser, founder and CEO of GO Communications and chairman of GO Group, said there is a repetitious nature in which Musk drums up any one single random thought in his unconventional mind and within seconds is paraded on Twitter for the world of social media to gather in a chorus of pandemonium.

"It no longer seems a question of reliability but rather a ‘poke-the-bear’ reaction-based mechanism that’s more about appeasing (or perhaps gaslighting) a Millennial-based audience rather than any thought of repercussion toward his personal brand or stable of companies. Simply put, Musk is doing it his way!" he explained.

While some leaders might steer away from such online behaviour, Musk seems to be embracing it. According to De Kretser, there is a fine line between madness and genius and Musk just might be teetering on the edge of the former.

Musk is notorious for pushing the proverbial envelope as ratings are increasing and more commonly dictated by extreme commentary.

"We only have to look at the likes of Donald Trump, Joe Rogan and now Musk to see those who are able to gather gargantuan groundswell with radical statements that seem to resonate with a legion of diehard fans," he said. This comes as the US, in particular, is becoming more divided with much of the younger demographic responsive to the populist and rebellious nature of people in power, De Krester added.

While some might argue that this is just "Musk being Musk", Charu Srivastava, deputy MD, Redhill said this defence will not work for long and does not believe such behaviour good for Musk's reputation in the long run. According to her, there are real implications to what Musk says or says he will do at the end of the day. "So no, I believe the excuse of 'erratic behaviour' will not work for long," she said.

Srivastava added that trust is a cornerstone of leadership, especially so when the leader in question is looked up to for their expertise and literal market-moving insights. According to her, Musk enjoyed this distinction over the years but has recently been eroding his credibility through his actions, such as the Twitter saga.  "I do not think this is good for Musk’s reputation in the long-run, it erodes his credibility and poses questions about his capability as a sound business leader," she explained. 

What happens to companies when Musk name drops?

Without a doubt, Musk's statements have the ability to impact markets. Aside from Manchester United's shares rising after his tweet, CNBC previously reported that Twitter's shares dipped 11% in early July after Musk attempted to terminate his US$44 billion acquisition of the company. Stocks of Indonesia confectionary brand Kopiko also jumped 7.3% earlier this year after Musk published a video of him trying out the coffee-flavoured candy.

Companies that are name-dropped by Musk need to manage any impact, reputational or operational, through timely and proper response to nip any rumours in the bud, Srivastava said. She added:

There needs to be clear messaging on where the company stands and to reinforce any 'jokes' as just that. It’s a good idea to use humour where possible to manage such situations.

Likewise, Golin's Mukherjee said companies need to immediately assess the potential positive and negative impact of that commentary. That analysis should help frame their communication strategy to either ride the wave of opportunity or counter any anticipated threat to the brand’s reputation. According to Mukherjee, even a decision to not engage should be a well-weighed strategy. "Like him or hate him, it’s not prudent to close your eyes on him," he said.

Learning lessons for leaders from Musk's behaviour

Regardless of all the erratic tweets and statements that Musk makes, he seems to know what makes his followers tick and react. In fact, GO Communications' De Kretser said Musk seems to inherently be a PR man, drumming up publicity in just about any trending topic at any given time.

"From the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp court case to purchasing Twitter or infamously challenging Putin to UFC one-on-one single combat, Musk seems to always throw his hat in the ring! While it could be construed as all PR is good PR, Musk could be living in space before SpaceX potentially get us there!" he added.

Musk has also shown he is consistent in his inconsistencies.

Golin's Mukherjee explained that the Tesla chief has "spent years cultivating the image of an eccentric, disruptive yet brilliant entrepreneur", and his theatrics both online and offline fit right in.

"His communication ‘non-strategy’ works because of the person he is, and it cannot be a template for others. Off-the-cuff remarks may not necessarily lead to litigation or regulatory action, but they will likely cost most brands their reputation, investors, and customers," he added.

Not all leaders are willing to or capable of replicating Musk's behaviour. For those who are more cautious in their messaging to the public, Redhill's Srivastava advised them to not let their ego get to their heads. "You spend years building your reputation and credibility, and it is a truly ongoing effort. A small misstep can undo the hard work of years and it can be very challenging to win back the court of public opinion," she said.

Popular opinion can change as quickly as it is formed. Most importantly, lost of trust for a business leader costs more than your reputation, it also impacts the business and its bottom line.

She also explained that employees look up to leaders for direction and guidance and take cues from their actions and words. "They look for reliable, trustworthy and credible leadership. Not someone who is erratic and prone to act on impulse. Leadership comes with a lot of responsibility, and it is crucial for leaders to fully understand that what they say and how they behave goes beyond them as an individual," she added.

Related articles:
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Mattel inks deal with Elon Musk’s Space X to launch astro-themed toys
Elon Musk gives ultimatum to Tesla employees
Kopiko sees stocks jump after Elon Musk shows support
Twitter finally agrees to sell to Elon Musk for US$44bn

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