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As Musk faces the music, pros predict what’s next: puppet CEO, ad losses, a Dorsey return?

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By Kendra Barnett | Senior Reporter

December 19, 2022 | 13 min read

Will the king give up the throne?

Elon Musk at Twitter

Who will replace Musk as CEO of Twitter? / Adobe Stock

The drama that has unfolded at Twitter since billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk took the helm in late October has reached a boiling point. Musk Sunday night took to Twitter to post a poll surveying users on whether or not he should step down as CEO. The results: a resounding “yes,” with more than 57% of voters answering in the affirmative.

The news comes after nearly two months of chaos that saw mass layoffs (followed by mass resignations), an exodus of advertisers, drastic platform changes, the reinstatement of controversial formerly-banned users and a recent uptick in suspensions of public figures.

Now, social media, PR and advertising experts estimate what’s in the cards for Twitter’s future. Here are their top predictions:

1. He’s out, for real

Some have speculated that Musk’s poll was merely a thinly-veiled excuse to step down in light of pressure from investors. Tesla investor Leonidas Raisini tweeted Sunday that he overheard Musk chatting at the World Cup Final with Saudi Royals (some of whom are among the largest investors in Twitter) and the Amir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad, surmising from the exchange that the billionaire has been asked to find a successor.

Andrew Graham, founder and head of strategy at Bread & Law, a New York-based PR firm, also thinks Musk is under the gun. “He's clearly facing massive pressure from Tesla shareholders, who seem equally bothered by the resources he's dedicating to Twitter's business and the alt-right trolling he's doing on the platform.”

Regardless of the legitimacy of the poll, industry experts believe Musk is likely to keep his word and stick with users’ decision.

“He's facing pressure to step down anyways, and a while back he [said he] was going to appoint a new CEO. This is likely where this was always headed,” says Shiv Gupta, managing partner at U of Digital, a digital marketing education firm.

Others agree that the answer was there all along: “The fact that Elon asked [in a poll] means that he’s already decided,” says Mike Woosley, chief operating officer at data management firm Lotame. “Musk can revolutionize terrestrial transportation and shoot a rocket to the moon, but he’s realized that herding the ducks and cats of human human sentiment and opinion in a forum built for ‘radical free speech’ is much much harder.”

However, some industry experts are less convinced. “It’s a big question mark whether he actually does step down, because he's famous for making promises and not delivering – or making changes and then U-turning on them fast when there's a backlash or it doesn't suit his feelings for that day…,” says Matt Navarra, a leading social media consultant.

Still, Navarra believes it’s likely that Musk will resign. “I get a feeling with this particular [decision] that he will follow through. I'm pretty sure he expected the result that came from the poll. It's fitting that his end of being the head of Twitter is completed by the use of a poll, given what he's been doing over the last few weeks and months [in using polls to determine policy on Twitter].”

2. Musk will focus his efforts elsewhere

Before he took the reins at Twitter, Musk already had a fairly full plate. As the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and the founder of The Boring Company, and Neuralink, Musk has long had to split his time and attention carefully.

Now, experts predict that by stepping down from a leadership role at Twitter, he’ll direct more focus toward his other ventures.

“Elon Musk has important work to do,” says Mike Woosley, chief operating officer at data management firm Lotame. “SpaceX is rumored to conduct its first orbital flight of Starship this month. The massive spaceship is supposed to help bring NASA back to the moon and humanity to Mars in the coming decades. Back on Earth, in attacking the electrification of transportation, Elon’s Tesla is on the cusp of delivering its first electric tractor-trailers. And in the interest of conquering China, his Beijing-based Tesla Gigafactory is on course to deliver a million vehicles per year.”

Putting it succinctly, he says, “The man has a lot on his plate. Why in the world is he wasting his time frittering with Twitter?”

Others agree that Musk is grappling with too many demands on his attention and is likely being forced to make a decision. “Musk can’t possibly do everything and be CEO of such a multitude of the biggest businesses in the world,” says Paul Coggins, CEO at mobile advertising firm Adludio. “Tesla and their investors for one, will, when the competition heats up, ask Musk to choose: Twitter or Tesla. Musk is not an adman. He might not go now, but it’s almost guaranteed he will bring someone else in within 12 months.”

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3. The role of Twitter CEO will remain a ‘poisoned chalice’

What might a new head of Twitter look like? The future remains unclear, and experts appear somewhat divided on how similar or dissimilar a new leader will be to Musk.

“In terms of who will become the new boss, who knows? It's a poisoned chalice,” says Navarra. “It was already a challenging role to make Twitter a success before Elon Musk got involved. But now with all the things that are going on, and the economic climate and the upset he’s caused with advertisers and heavy users, it's going to make it a really difficult job for anybody to take on – and not one that many will want to do.”

Ultimately, Navarra says he has “a horrible feeling” about who might be next in line for the throne. He predicts that “there's a big plot twist coming in terms of who he recruits to be the head of Twitter.”

Bread & Law’s Graham has a different intuition: that Musk will remain puppetmaster – but from behind the scenes. “While I think he'll probably give the CEO title to somebody else, I don't think he'll relinquish control,” he says. “Maybe Jason Calacanis or one of Elon's other stans become CEO, or maybe it’s someone without the name recognition, so that the way the platform’s run doesn’t drive headlines like it has been under Musk. Either way, it would be someone else’s name as CEO of Musk Twitter – [but it] will still be Musk Twitter.”

Graham believes that Musk won’t relinquish control because he sees Twitter as a tool for his political gain. As he puts it: “What I think a lot of people have missed is the idea that Musk's ownership of Twitter was, is and always will be a political act with political objectives.I f he can use Twitter to, say, cozy up to a hypothetical President DeSantis or boost a candidate he prefers in another part of the world, then he could easily get back more than what he put in to control it – which is why I don't think he'll just hand it over to someone else to run in a way that contradicts how he’s been running it.”

U of Digital’s Gupta is more optimistic. He suggests that things can only go uphill from here. “A new CEO will likely be way more measured about the business – dependent on how much Elon will interfere,” considering Musk is still the majority owner, he says.

4. Twitter will be hard-pressed to win back the favor of disgruntled advertisers

In recent months, Twitter has lost approximately half of its top 100 advertisers, per data from not-for-profit watchdog Media Matters – largely due to brand safety concerns that stemmed from Musk's lax approach to content moderation. Major brands like Volkswagen and Pfizer said goodbye to the blue bird and top advertising holding companies like IPG and Havas advised all clients to pause ad spend.

“In terms of advertisers and the future of Twitter, we have reached a critical point,” says Navarra.

He suggests that the amalgamation of controversial decisions in the last few weeks alone – including the banning of journalists and a since-reversed new rule that sought to prohibit the promotion of other social platforms – will have served as the final straw for brands who may have still been on the fence. “It's really tipped the balance of favor with those that were undecided voters – so to speak – with Elon Musk, or with people that were concerned with things but weren't concerned enough to leave. Those decisions – and the repercussions they had over the last week – have really shifted the tide of concern that people had and the motivation people have to exit Twitter and seek alternative platforms.”

The recent controversies add to an exodus already underway, as users and brands have increasingly fled to TikTok, Mastodon, Hive and other platforms.

Navarra believes that even now, with Musk likely to step down, advertisers “are not going to feel comfortable using a platform when they feel that many of its users are unhappy with the decisions and the actions of its leadership.” He predicts that the repercussions of advertiser pullback will continue to spell trouble for Twitter’s bottom line.

Graham agrees with Navarra. The damage has been done, he argues, and, if his prediction plays out and a new figurehead becomes CEO but Musk continues to pull the strings, advertisers will see through the guise and keep their distance. “I don't think a CEO shake-up would fundamentally change anything about Twitter's appeal to advertisers now,” he says. “The lack of consistent content moderation and enforcement that punishes disinformation and hate speech makes it a no-go for brands, and now the reality is that advertising there is an implicit endorsement of Elon’s politics.”

Gupta, again, takes a more hopeful outlook. He argues that any incoming leader is likely to take a more careful – and likely less controversial – approach to leadership, which will inevitably create a more welcoming environment for advertisers. “This will be positive for brand safety on the platform, and will make Twitter more inviting again for advertisers,” he says. “This can only be a positive thing.”

5. The return of Jack Dorsey?

Although many are hesitant to predict who Musk’s successor might be, Lotame’s Woosley says there’s an obvious choice: “Who will the new CEO be? Hard to predict, but Jack Dorsey comes to mind.”

Dorsey, who co-founded the social platform in 2006, stepped down as its chief executive late last year. He currently helms Block, the conglomerate behind Square, Cash App, Tidal and other tech ventures.

There have been recent reports suggesting that Dorsey regrets how things played out with Musk’s buyout. Yahoo and MSN this morning reported that data scientist Emily Gorcenski exchanged Twitter messages with Dorsey last month in which he confessed that Twitter “had no defenses” to Musk’s takeover in October. The former Twitter CEO said he regretted ever taking the platform public because it meant that “anyone could buy” it.

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