Elon Musk’s secret PR machine at X

Elon Musk’s secret PR machine at X

Elon Musk Tesla TSLA

Happy Friday, it’s tech reporter Kylie Robison. I have one question for everyone today: Since when did Twitter/X start doing media communications again?

Last Saturday, someone in X’s “business operations” department sent out an email to journalists at Bloomberg, The Verge, Fortune and more to spread the good news: X has partnered with Paris Hilton as a way to promote the platform’s live shopping feature.

What X sent out is called a “press embargo” which is a well-worn tradition in the realms of journalism and public relations. It’s an agreement typically between PR and a journalist to release news at a predetermined time (X’s embargo time was Oct. 2, at 11:30 a.m. ET). Embargoes can be for a range of announcements, from product launches to government findings, scientific breakthroughs, and financial results.

But wait, X, the company owned by Elon Musk, is working with the mainstream media? The same Elon Musk who has repeatedly disparaged the media, telling his fans that he “almost never reads legacy news anymore,” that “citizen journalism,” not the “media elite,” is the future, and literally flinging digital poop at journalists?

Well, X seems to have figured out a clever way to reconcile these two things. You see, the company isn’t calling what it does media communications or press relations—that would mean admitting that X actually craves and goes out of its way to seek coverage of product announcements and other “positive stories” in the mainstream media. Instead, X is calling this kind of work “business operations.” Joe Benarroch, a former director of communications for Facebook’s small business and international advertising business who then did a stint as SVP of communications at NBC, is spearheading X’s don’t-call-it-PR effort.

You won’t find an archive of press releases on X’s website, but Benarroch appears to be busily doing flak-work (as it’s called in the business) behind-the-scenes, emailing reporters embargoed news announcements.

Musk’s disdain or distaste for traditional communications departments is well known. “We need a VP of Propaganda … errr I mean Public Relations!” Musk tweeted, referring to Twitter, in April. He dissolved Tesla’s entire PR department in 2020, and one of his first orders of business after buying Twitter last November was axing its PR department too. At that time, if I needed to get a comment or check a fact for a story, I’d have to send an email to Twitter’s general press email, only to receive a poop emoji in return. That changed when Linda Yaccarino joined as CEO in June, but only slightly. Now the automated response is somewhat more polite: “We’ll get back to you soon.” They will not, in fact, get back to you soon.

While part of PR people’s job is to make mine harder, they are nonetheless considered an integral part of any modern company. They serve as the guardians of brand reputation, as Axios put it, and there are few companies that need their brand’s vulnerabilities protected like X.

Also, Musk really hates the media. He has done quite a bit of work to prove it, too. He ran NPR off the platform after briefly labeling them “state-affiliated media,” he regularly badgers the New York Times as being “woke,” and a quick search of his tweets for the word “media” will provide anyone with enough information about his opinion. Yet, interestingly enough, business operations under Yaccarino relied on the same media Musk disdains to get the word out about a big celebrity partnership.

When it comes to how X functions today, it seems that the right-hand does not talk to the left. Musk runs the product side and Yaccarino, who was considered the most powerful person in the advertising business until June, seems to do everything Musk wants to avoid. Yaccarino has handled some public appearances, wooing advertisers (who bring the revenue X so dearly needs), and other minutiae that seem to make Musk’s skin crawl. That’s typical for his companies, and he’s loud about hating the CEO gig.

So it’s not necessarily surprising that Yaccarino might encourage her cohort to do covert communications work. The company needs it, and the Hilton embargo came only a few days after her disastrous interview at Code, so maybe she needs it too. What’s more, Yaccarino seems to work the janitor shift. Musk blows things up, and Yaccarino mops up the mess. It makes sense that she needs someone else to silently grab a mop too.

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