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Elon Musk Doesn’t Understand or Support Free Speech and Neither Do Most Brands

The United States has a Constitution, the First Amendment of which assures “free speech,” but neither the Constitution nor its amendments refer to the behavior of private companies. So, as Elon Musk knows since he fired the engineers at SpaceX that complained about his behavior, he doesn’t have to comply with the Constitution.

Typically, social media companies aren’t held accountable for what is on their sites because they aren’t the ones posting. I might argue that since Musk put people who had been banned for misbehavior back on Twitter, you could argue that this protection may no longer apply to Twitter. There is a huge difference between defending something you have no control over and defending something you clearly did intentionally and, I expect, we’ll see that play out.

But why don’t brands like “free speech” and why do so many influencers find this out the hard way by losing their clients when they exercise those free speech rights?

Let’s explore that this week.

The Role of Marketing

It’s clear that Elon Musk doesn’t understand how marketing works. If he did, he would have never done what he did at Twitter. Marketing is focused on getting potential buyers to buy your products even if it isn’t in their best interest to do so. Marketing generally dictates where ads go and who posts on social media, as well as what is said in those posts, so Marketing is the organization that will come after you if anything you say reflects badly on the company because it will reflect badly on the CMO if the CEO or board reads or hears negative feedback about the post.

Marketing owns its company’s image and, as such, tends to protect that image aggressively. It doesn’t want the brand degraded by any controversy because it makes Marketing’s job harder. Controversies create risk, often unknown risks, that a marketing executive only wants to take if it is a means to an approved end.

Companies like Apple and Disney are particularly protective of their brand image and don’t take kindly to anyone speaking negatively about the company, particularly if they work for it. Marketing owns the message and the brand, and while it is a staff organization, it often has a surprising amount of power when it comes to assuring the company image.

The CEO can override marketing decisions, but if what the CEO says blows up, Marketing will likely be on the side of getting a new CEO, and even CEOs can get fired for their behavior on social media.

Apple and Amazon

You may argue that both Apple and Amazon have said they are going back to Twitter, but has anyone seen an Apple or Amazon ad on Twitter yet? Musk created a conundrum for several companies because if they announced they were leaving Twitter, they risked losing sales to conservative buyers. If they stayed on Twitter, they risked having their brand connected with some of the behavior on that platform that reflected poorly on it. So, being smart, both companies said they were going back to Twitter but seem not to be spending much, if any, ad dollars on the platform. I expect this will work until Musk calls them out for not advertising and then they’ll have to figure out a plan B. For now, their plan A works because they are standing out by banning Twitter, but the brands aren’t damaged by advertising on it.

In short, just like Musk and those SpaceX employees, they don’t want “free speech.” They want control over their brand and image and thus will restrict speech in order to assure that outcome.

Wrapping up: No One Really Wants Totally Free Speech

Would you want someone to spread bad stories about you even if those stories were true, or especially if they weren’t? Of course not. No one wants to be bad-mouthed, and Marketing will pull ad budgets from publications that they think are being excessively negative. For some brands, even occasional negative comments aren’t acceptable. These brands often try to use their ad dollars to assure positive coverage. It isn’t just about rhetoric involving the company but on any subject that a major portion of the firm’s customer base feels strongly about. They don’t want a boycott to result from something under marketing control because, unlike CEOs that are relatively hard to fire, CMOs are easy to fire. If a CMO’s decision has an adverse impact on sales, the VP of Sales will be the first to step up and ask for the CMO’s head on a platter.

One other thing about Musk’s current behavior: He seems to be working to build support with conservatives, given they aren’t fans of Tesla cars. But one of the reasons for that isn’t just their lack of belief in global warming. It’s that many of the politicians own car dealerships, and there are no third-party-owned Tesla dealers. So, right now, Musk’s actions are only having a negative impact on Tesla sales. For instance, at a time when every dealer in town is short on cars, our local Tesla store has a massive number of Tesla’s on the lot.

My sense is that had Musk actually understood how “free speech” worked, he wouldn’t have considered buying Twitter, and this lack of understanding is why it is such a massive train wreck at the moment.

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