Analysis: Do Language Clues Point To Early Friction Between Elon Musk And Twitter?

Zinger Key Points
  • Twitter keeps offering reminders of the limit to Musk's involvement
  • Musk insists "significant improvements" are coming to Twitter

The author and presidential speechwriter James Humes once opined, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.”

Over the past couple of weeks, the art of communication was equal parts Impressionist, Abstract and Realist in regard to the linguistic pas de deux performed by the leadership of Twitter TWTR and Tesla TSLA CEO Elon Musk when the latter bought himself a seat on the social media giant’s board of directors.

Who’s The Boss? Prior to Monday’s surprise announcement that Musk acquired a 9.2% stake in Twitter, making him the largest individual shareholder, new attention was given to Musk’s tweets from previous days about adding an edit button for Twitter users and insisting that because “Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.”

Twitter’s communications team went into overdrive to offer none-too-subtle reminders that Musk’s new role as director would not extend beyond the boardroom in to the C-suite. In regard to the edit button, the company told its users it was “working on an edit feature since last year,” adding with a winking emoji that “no, we didn’t get the idea from a poll” – a facetious but still unsubtle cue to all interested parties that Musk was not calling the shots on Twitter features.

See Also: Benzinga Live: Elon Musk + Twitter = ?

As for Musk’s rallying cry for free speech principles, Twitter’s communications team responded to a direct query from Daily Mail about reinstating former President Donald Trump’s account with a pushback on just who is in charge of Twitter policy.

“Twitter is committed to impartiality in the development and enforcement of its policies and rules,” the company said in an unattributed statement. “Our policy decisions are not determined by the Board or shareholders, and we have no plans to reverse any policy decisions.

“As always,” the statement added, "our Board plays an important advisory and feedback role across the entirety of our service. Our day to day operations and decisions are made by Twitter management and employees.”

As Musk doesn't have an executive role to go with his board seat, the statement’s last sentence is harshly obvious.

A Place For Musk: Now, consider the language that Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal used in welcoming Musk as a new director: “He’s both a passionate believer and intense critic of the service which is exactly what we need on @Twitter, and in the boardroom, to make us stronger in the long-term.”

Communications specialists will immediately recognize that this tweet was not off-the-cuff — Agrawal defined Musk’s role as being “on @Twitter, and in the boardroom” — this was a subtle yet firm reminder that Musk’s input would be welcomed on the platform and in board meetings only.

Twitter founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey was even more subtle when he tweeted, “Parag and Elon both lead with their hearts, and they will be an incredible team.”

Again, the verbiage is very careful: “Parag and Elon both lead with their hearts” — notice that Dorsey put Agrawal ahead of Musk, a sly reminder that Agrawal is the CEO and Musk is not. And when Dorsey proclaims “they will be an incredible team,” he uses language to isolate Musk into having a direct relationship with Dorsey and not with the wider Twitter environment, which would make him part of a corporate team.

See Also: Does Elon Musk's Investment Make Twitter A Serious Buyout Candidate?

If You Don’t Get The Hint: Other members of Twitter’s full team were less careful in sharing their opinions about Musk’s arrival.

"Good morning to our new overlord!" tweeted Lara Cohen, Twitter's global head of partners.

"Elon Musk just (temporarily at least) made me a lot of money. And I still dislike him," tweeted Haraldur Thorleifsson, leader of Twitter's 0→1 Team.

Word that some Twitter workers would rather quit than have Musk on their board of directors has permeated the tech world. Fox News reported that Lulu Cheng Meservey, vice president of communications at Substack, acknowledged the internal bitterness at Twitter with the tweet warning: "If you’re a Twitter employee who’s considering resigning because you’re worried about Elon Musk pushing for less regulated speech… please do not come work here."

For his part, Musk responded to his new board role by tweeting, “Looking forward to working with Parag & Twitter board to make significant improvements to Twitter in coming months!”

In this case, the words “significant improvements” stand out — this is a clear vow that the status quo is on borrowed time. But consider Musk’s use of “working with Parag & Twitter board” and “in coming months!” — if anyone inside Twitter believes they can isolate Musk in a boardroom and keep his hands permanently off the corporate steering wheel, there are six words that should make them think twice: Carl Icahn and Xerox Holdings Corp. XRX

Photo: Matteo Polsinelli / Flickr Creative Commons

Posted In: NewsMovers & ShakersManagementOpinionTop StoriesTechGeneralElon MuskJack DorseyLanguageParag Agarwaltwitter