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Trendsetting Executives: Does Big Personality Equal Big Benefits?

A look at the positives and pitfalls of cultivating the persona of a trendsetting executive

By: Brett Grega

With the advent of social media, executives of today’s most influential businesses have the capability to change the world with just the click of a send button. This exposure comes at a price though. As the walls between the carefully curated public personas of old begin to crumble, so too does some of the protection those barriers provided. It’s incumbent upon modern public relations professionals to now be able to recognize and navigate the fine line between status-raising celebrity and crisis-wreaking catastrophes their bosses walk.

Some of the greatest examples of that perilous balancing act have come in the 21st century space race. The executives involved are not just blazing new trails into the sky but are blazing their own unique paths through the 24-hour news cycle as well, oftentimes to both their benefit and detriment.

SpaceX’s X-Factor on the Ground: Elon Musk’s Massive Media Reach

No one embodies that duality better than Elon Musk. The newly dubbed “Technoking of Tesla” not only runs an extraordinarily successful electronic car manufacturer, but also one of the world’s premier private space companies. Musk’s SpaceX holds billions of dollars in United States government contracts as a result.

Nonetheless, the man behind the rocket is infamously prone to media mishaps, some of which have caused him to run afoul of the government in the past. Most significant of these incidents involved tweeting that he would take Tesla private, possibly as a joke, and thus sparking a security fraud charge from the SEC.

On the other hand, Musk’s quirky tweets, strong grasp of internet culture and carefree attitude have given him something of a cult of personality. As a result, he’s earned an almost incalculable amount of earned media. In other words, Musk’s public fame has undoubtedly benefitted his businesses when not garnering negative headlines.

This approach is all but impossible for most executives to take. Nonetheless, the positive elements of Musk’s fame illustrate some of the value to allowing even a small-time executive to showcase their personality and pop culture savvy more.

Houston, We Have a Blunder: Jeff’s Joyride Comments

While undoubtedly on par with Musk in power and influence, look no further than Amazon executive Jeff Bezos for proof that vast media exposure isn’t for everyone.

After Bezos emerged from a successful personal spaceflight through his own galactically inclined company, Blue Origin, he made a rather unfortunate press faux pas. “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this,” Bezos said post-flight according to The Huffington Post.

The comment quickly drew condemnation from government officials and the general public alike, largely for how tone-deaf Bezos sounded for delivering it in the first place. Given the past controversies surrounding Amazon’s treatment of its workers, its no wonder why either.

That outrage goes to show how the public’s perception of a company can drastically affect the perception of its executive, no matter how powerful or attention-grabbing they may be. In other words, no amount of executive success or fame can offset an organization’s moral failings.

How Richard Branson Stays Afloat Amid Controversy

Conversely, the strong character of a trendsetting executive can also play a major role in avoiding some of the worst kinds of public condemnation. Richard Branson, the head of Virgin Group, is a perfect example. Much like Bezos, Branson is a billionaire with ambitions to touch the stars, yet moralistic attacks at Branson for the ethicality of those ambitions have seemingly been far sparser compared to the Amazon founder. While that doesn’t mean Branson has been immune from those criticisms, it just means that it’s simply far easier to find vocal opponents of his counterparts in what some call the billionaire space race.

That may be in no small part due to his public likability. Inc’s Justin Bariso noted that Branson may be the “most popular entrepreneur in the world,” in part due to his personability and public expressions of care for employees in interviews.

By maintaining a more endearing public presence, coupled with the evidence to back up his good nature of course, Branson can more deftly navigate the media world than his counterparts. That should mark a lesson for public relation professionals about the importance of emphasizing warmth, care and relatability when coaching executives.

Takeaways From These Trailblazing Executives

Altogether, PR professionals should realize that today’s expanding digital reach and media presence can be a powerful tool and dangerous weapon for executives alike. Even when dealing with executives lacking the celebrity of a Musk or Bezos, it’s important to remember what can be learned from these trendsetting executive’s first forays into this space when helping craft the public responses of one’s own boss.

Brett Grega is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications like The Chicago Tribune, Polygon, WhatCulture and The Borgen Project.


This material was written for and provided by AGENZ PR, a student-led PR firm specializing in matters of diversity, inclusion, and the Gen Z perspective. AGENZ teams are comprised of PR students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism, all of whom are dedicated to providing clients with insightful and digitally innovative work products to enhance business practices. Students learn and excel by getting hands-on, professional experience in the public relations industry.