News and PR Insights from 5W Public Relations CEO Ronn Torossian

Elon Musk in Court Over ‘Pedo Guy’ Tweets

In July of 2018, British diver Vernon Unsworth took part in a daring, life-threatening rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach, all of whom had been trapped inside a quickly flooding cave system. It could have been one of the purest and best “good news” stories of 2018; for most people, it certainly was.

But there was one aspect of the round-the-clock news about the story that went off the rails, thanks to comments made by Unsworth, and the response from billionaire Elon Musk, who famously offered to assist with rescue efforts. That offer of assistance included the use of a mini-submersible.

While some involved in the rescue expressed appreciation and politely said “no, that won’t work for this situation,” Unsworth went on CNN and called Musk’s offer a “publicity stunt” rather than a genuine offer of assistance, adding that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts…”

Those comments did not sit well with Musk, who took to Twitter to both defend himself and to castigate Unsworth. During one part of his rant, Musk referred to Unsworth as ‘pedo guy’… and that brings us up to the present, when Musk appeared in court to testify in a defamation hearing in which he has been accused of harming Unsworth’s public reputation.

Headed into court, Musk had nothing to say to the swarm of reporters waiting for a soundbite. Instead, he let his testimony do the talking. Musk opened by apologizing for the comment, adding that he reacted to an “unprovoked” insult from Unsworth. Musk said he did not believe Unsworth was speaking literally when he suggested what Musk could do with his sub, just as he was not speaking literally when he reacted by insulting Unsworth.

If you’re a member of the general public sitting back watching two high-profile guys have a go at each other on Twitter, all of this seems a bit silly. However, from both a PR and a legal standpoint, this issue has some teeth.

First, the legal: Unsworth is seeking compensatory and punitive damages from Musk. This case would have been news just because it’s Musk. Which is one of the key points in Unsworth’s argument, that Musk’s profile has the real potential to do real harm to a person’s reputation.  Is there a “second” point?

From a PR perspective, this case is guaranteed to get press, again, because it’s Musk. However, it also includes a person most of the world considers a hero. And now that “hero” tag may have been tainted. Unsworth may or may not have needed to respond the way he did in order to protect his reputation, but he’s chosen to be proactive on the issue, attempting to take some control of a message that’s guaranteed to be told, with or without his input. Whether or not the case goes his way, at least now, he’s had a say in the conversation.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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