On June 23, a Thai soccer team composed of 11 and 12-year-old boys, accompanied by their coach, explored a cave system after practice. The world watched with fear and anticipation as rescue operations were formed and launched into action. The task was so difficult, that one rescuer would even lose their life.
During these events, tech billionaire Elon Musk—well known for his eccentric online personality—announced that he was sending his engineers to help with the rescue mission. These engineers would be tasked with creating a “submarine” that could safely be navigated through the cave’s watery labyrinth.
There was only one catch—the device constructed by Musk’s employees wasn’t actually helpful to the mission. According to a BBC interview with the mission commander, the device wasn’t practical for the tasks at hand.
According to reporting by CNN, one rescue diver said that Musk’s involvement was entirely unhelpful and was solely a “PR stunt.” This prompted Musk’s infamous, now-deleted tweet containing the phrase, “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.”
This prompted a public relations firestorm, with the diver threatening to sue. While Musk’s internet personality is its own fascinating topic, followers of the rescue mission and fans of Musk alike should really consider what this incident means.
Musk, whose employees did not have a meaningful impact on the mission, libelously lashed out against a diver, who actively risked their wellbeing to bring children and their coach to safety. At face value, this altercation between Musk and the rescue diver was an inappropriate move for Musk. Beyond that, it reveals the tech billionaire’s actual primary goal: an improved public image.
To set the record straight, Musk did ultimately apologize to the diver, but not until after he had continued to smear the diver in a childish manner.
Even if the submarine had worked, his behavior wouldn’t have been acceptable.
As consumers of media, it is important for us to remain vigilant against public relation campaigns meant to skew our favor. This is one of those instances. Musk has clearly demonstrated that he clearly intended to make the rescue mission about his own self gain. Frankly, it appears that saving the children was a secondary priority.
I can only hope that in the future, the court of public opinion is slower to embrace Musk’s online persona and dramatic publicity campaigns. While his enterprises have gained cult-like followings, this blunder will hopefully help shed a light on the grim reality behind ultrawealthy philanthropy.
This ordeal is another reminder of why celebrity worship is so dangerous. At the end of the day, he is a business owner who puts his financial success above all else.
Musk isn’t alone with using ultra-wealthy philanthropy as a public relations tool. One could argue that improved public image is the main reason wealthy philanthropists exist. This isn’t an argument against philanthropy, but we shouldn’t forget why these individuals and organizations are sharing pieces of their vast fortunes.