Who Is Winning the Battle

Estimated read time 7 min read
  • Elon Musk filed a lawsuit against OpenAI and its CEO Sam Altman, years after he left the startup.
  • In the court of public opinion, Musk has the upper hand, PR experts told Business Insider. 
  • And though the lawsuit may be weak, Musk has put OpenAI in the hot seat, the experts said. 

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Elon Musk can’t seem to stop feuding with other billionaire tech moguls. His latest target — OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.

Musk may not have a winning lawsuit against OpenAI, the company he helped found nearly a decade ago, but the outspoken mega-entrepreneur has the upper hand when it comes to battling it out with Altman in the court of public opinion, several PR experts told Business Insider.

“Sam Altman is duking it out with the greatest of all time. It’s like he’s stepping into the ring with the Muhammad Ali of the tech world,” said Evan Nierman, the founder and CEO of global crisis PR firm Red Banyan.

Elon Musk and Sam Altman speak onstage during an event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 6, 2015 in San Francisco, California.

Elon Musk and Sam Altman speak onstage during an event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

Late last month, Musk threw down the gauntlet at Altman when he filed a lawsuit against him and OpenAI in a California court, alleging the Microsoft-backed company had breached a 2015 “founding agreement” to develop artificial general intelligence to benefit humanity and not as a for-profit company.

Musk has been taking shots at Altman and OpenAI for years, but Altman and his company have remained neutral — until recently.

In a recent court filing, OpenAI slammed Musk’s lawsuit as “frivolous” and “incoherent,” arguing that Musk has acted out of jealousy for OpenAI’s success after he walked away from the company in 2018. The company also published a series of emails that appear to show Musk not only supported the startup’s shift to a for-profit model, but pushed for the company to “attach to Tesla as its cash cow.”

The lawsuit has pitted two of the most powerful CEOs in tech against one another. But it might not be a fair fight, according to the public relations experts.

Altman and OpenAI have “more to lose” in this fight than Musk because “they haven’t been subjected to the same controversy, critique and criticism” that Musk and his companies like Tesla, SpaceX and the social media site X have endured, said Nierman.

Musk’s reputation has already been impacted by what Nierman called a “series of PR missteps” in recent years, but he said Musk’s “brand is so much bigger than Sam Altman’s at this point, for better or worse.”

“He’s been in lots of tough brawls and he’s managed to always come out standing,” Nierman, the co-author of “The Cancel Culture Curse,” said of Musk.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk.

Chesnot/Getty Images

xAI gets a boost

Musk’s OpenAI lawsuit puts the firm that made ChatGPT — and is now worth $86 billion — in the hot seat, while giving his own artificial intelligence startup a boost in the process, Nierman and other PR experts told BI.

“Elon Musk is the best PR stuntsman I’ve ever seen,” Kyle Arteaga, the CEO of the national tech PR company, The Bulleit Group, said. “Elon doesn’t care about winning this lawsuit, all he’s doing is stealing OpenAI’s media attention and putting a sliver of doubt in developers’ heads.”

Though legal experts have said Musk’s lawsuit is likely to be dismissed, Arteaga explained that Musk, through the complaint, has positioned his own rival AI startup, xAI, high up in the AI market, thanks to the media coverage it’s received in relation to the lawsuit.

“What Elon has done is basically leapfrog all of the major players — Anthropic, Cohere, and Mistral, and Gemini, and CoPilot. He’s basically trying to position himself as the No. 2 player in the space,” said Arteaga.

(Arteaga represents Impulse Space founder and CEO Tom Mueller, a co-founder of SpaceX.)

Musk’s lawsuit has also put OpenAI under a microscope, according to Nierman.

“Just by virtue of the fact that Elon Musk is raising concerns, it’s going to have a huge disruptive impact on OpenAI,” Nierman said.

Alan Dunton, the managing director of SHIFT Communications, a crisis PR firm in San Francisco, said both Musk and Altman are handling their very public legal fight in the complete opposite way he’d advise his clients to do, but he believes Musk’s brand will go largely unscathed.

As for Altman, a much lesser known figure to the general public, it’s too early to say, he said.

“If you’ve made up your mind that you’re pro-Elon, I think you’re gonna’ be pro-Elon, no matter what he does,” Dunton said.

Musk has repeatedly and publicly railed against OpenAI and Altman over the years, panning OpenAI as a “lie” and as a “closed source, maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft.”

Last week, the Tesla CEO said in a post on X in response to OpenAI that he’d drop his lawsuit if the company changed its name to “ClosedAI,” revealing the seemingly petty nature of his fight.

Sam Altman

Sam Altman.

JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

‘If you wrestle with a pig, you’re going to end up getting muddy’

Not all experts agree that Musk has played a winning hand thus far, though. Ayelet Noff, the founder and CEO of the global tech PR firm SlicedBrand, told BI that Musk’s outbursts have worked in Altman’s favor.

“The whole saga reflects very negatively on Musk’s persona,” Noff said. “He basically has stated that he started OpenAI together with Altman in order to benefit humanity, and I think his more recent actions have shown that he’s really more concerned about the benefit of Elon Musk.”

The more “respectful” way that Altman has handled the situation has put Altman “in a great light,” said Noff.

In the face of Musk’s very public disses, Altman has been more diplomatic in his responses.

He told podcaster Lex Fridman last year that he understands Musk is “really stressed” about AI safety, but he wishes the billionaire would do more to acknowledge the work OpenAI has done to address concerns about the technology.

Earlier this month, Altman told veteran tech reporter Kara Swisher that Musk was his “absolute hero” growing up.

During the interview, Swisher told Altman she thought Musk’s lawsuit was “nonsense.”

“I think he is an open wound. And we have to feel it every day,” Swisher, who has interviewed Musk on multiple occasions, said of the lawsuit. “It’s not a contract. It’s an open wound of past hurt that he made a mistake,” she added.

Meanwhile, OpenAI’s release of private emails from Musk show that Altman and his firm are ready for a showdown, Nierman said

“Putting out personal email exchanges online shows a willingness to air dirty laundry in public and sends the message that they intend to not just rollover, but to fight back,” said Nierman.

“There’s a saying that if you wrestle with a pig, you’re going to end up getting muddy,” Nierman said. “And I think in this case you got two people who are willing combatants in this wrestling match.”

Representatives for Musk, Altman, and OpenAI did not immediately respond to a requests for comment by Business Insider.