Letting your ego get in your way is bad. Calling a hero of the recent Thai cave rescue of the soccer team and coach a pedophile, which is what Elon Musk did on Sunday, is far worse. It's a PR disaster that never should have happened.
When a top executive says the wrong thing, problems ensue. Look at John Schnatter, ex-chairman and former CEO of Papa John's. You can't be a great CEO and respond in the most thoughtless manner possible.
Musk had offered to have SpaceX create a small, one-person capsule for the rescue effort and showed a video.
Simulating maneuvering through a narrow passage pic.twitter.com/2z01Ut3vxJ-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 9, 2018
First, credit where it's due. It was impressive that his company could take rocket parts on hand and develop a prototype in such a short period of time.
Early on, Musk said his team had discussed the idea with people from the rescue team. He sent a team over to the caves. But that apparently created some friction, particularly as the rescue effort was already underway. According to a New York Times report, the head of the search operation and former provisional governor, Narongsak Osottanakorn, said the device wasn't suitable.
The rescue effort had already seen one casualty: A Thai Navy SEAL diver died while trying to place air canisters. Diving is a potentially dangerous undertaking under the best of conditions, as mistakes can cause injury or death. Underwater caves with no easy escape compound the difficulties many times.
Musk dismissed Osottanakorn as not being "the subject matter expert" and then posted an exchange with one of the main divers on the rescue team.
The former Thai provincial governor (described inaccurately as "rescue chief") is not the subject matter expert. That would be Dick Stanton, who co-led the dive rescue team. This is our direct correspondence: pic.twitter.com/dmC9l3jiZR-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 10, 2018
This step alone was astoundingly tone-deaf. If you're offering help, that's great. But you don't second-guess the actual experts on the ground--or under the ground and in the water. According to the Times story, a spokesperson for Richard Stanton had said the cave proved to be too narrow for the device.
The other main British cave diver, Vernon Unsworth, who lives in Thailand and knows the cave system well from past experience, let loose in a CNN interview. He said that the idea "had absolutely no chance of working," that it was "just a PR stunt," and that Musk could "stick his submarine where it hurts.
Uncalled for? Sure. Ignoring bluster and peevishness is usually the best course.
But there's a huge difference between being a heroic diver and a high-profile CEO. The latter cannot give in. Musk did in a tweet that he has since deleted. Here's a screenshot from an archived version.
Calling someone a pedo, short for pedophile, without any proof goes beyond churlishness. In addition to the bad PR, Musk has now made himself, and maybe his company, a target for a potential libel suit.
[Update July 16, 2018, 7:10 a.m.: Unsworth is considering a lawsuit according to news service AFP.]
As the old saying goes, better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you a fool than to open it and remove any doubt.