Twitter layoffs renew client/agency fears about the platform’s direction under Musk

The mass layoffs threatened by Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk even before he formally took ownership of the platform took place on Friday, with the company reportedly laying off up to half of its global workforce of 7,500 people. Its Canadian managing director and director of public policy are among those let go.

According to the Washington Post, Twitter sent a company-wide email announcing its intention to cut staff late Thursday, saying they would receive an email with the subject line “Your Role at Twitter” by 9 a.m. PST on Friday. In an email obtained by the Post, the company stated that the layoffs were necessary to put the company on a “healthy path.”

The Post reported that anyone losing their job was notified by their personal email, while those keeping their job would be notified via their company email. The company’s offices were closed on Friday

While it’s unclear how many Twitter Canada staff were affected by the layoffs, there were some high-profile departures, including managing director Paul Burns, and director of public policy Michele Austin. Both publicly announced their departure on the platform Friday, using the #LoveWhereYouWorked hashtag that Twitter’s so-called “tweeps” have been using to inform people of their departure.

“It’s been a wild last 4.5 years,” wrote Burns, who joined Twitter in 2018 after moving over from the same role at Huge. “To the people, friends, partners, and tweeps that make this place so special. Thank you for all the adventures. Love you all so much.”

And in a thread, Austin, who oversaw digital policy for the platform during the 2022 U.S. midterms as well as the recent federal election in Canada, described her role with Twitter as “a dream job for a wonk like me,” and that its workplace culture was “nothing short of life-changing.”

On Friday, Bloomberg’s social media report Kurt Wagner tweeted that Twitter’s global communications/PR team, which once numbered between 80-100 people, now seems to be down to just two.

Friday’s announcement was the latest piece of bad news in what has been a turbulent time for Twitter since Musk took ownership just one week ago, and once again led to speculation about how the platform will look for advertisers under Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist” who has talked repeatedly about the importance of free speech.

While Musk has stated multiple times since acquiring Twitter that its content moderation policies have not changed, he also continues to send strong signals that there could be some loosened restrictions around what is permissible on the platform.

Indirectly addressing the layoffs, Musk tweeted on Friday that Twitter has experienced a “massive” drop in revenue because of “activist groups” pressuring advertisers, but reiterated that nothing has changed on the platform in regards to content moderation. “Extremely messed up!,” he said. “They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.”

Driving away Twitter’s major source of revenue might seem a curious decision after spending $44 billion to acquire it, but advertisers remain wary of how Musk’s views on free speech might translate to the platform, and what that might mean for brand safety.

Media agency presidents contacted by The Message also expressed distaste for the “callousness” and “disgusting” manner in which the layoffs were communicated to employees.

Cairnsoneil president Devon MacDonald, whose agency announced earlier this week that it would suspend all advertising activity on the platform for two weeks or until “material changes” were made to its to protect users, said that the way the layoffs were carried out could lead clients to “continue to question if Twitter is a match to their values and brand promise.”

“It’s simply no way to treat people [and] employees, ever,” said Horizon Media’s executive vice-president and general manager, Kevin Kivi. “These are difficult and challenging conversations, and they need to be handled with absolute care and sensitivity. I would urge Twitter to be respectful and do the right thing—not hide behind email.”

Equally worrisome to agencies is if, and how, Twitter will be able to ensure brand safety going forward. MacDonald said the layoffs would likely affect the ability of Canadian brands to evaluate the future viability and opportunities on Twitter. “I will be watching closely for updates as to how the platform can improve brand safety and content moderation while advancing the platform’s proposition with 50% less staff,” he said in a statement to The Message.

Dentsu Canada president Sarah Thompson said that the company constantly monitors for any changes to the Twitter algorithm, and that Friday’s news also means the agency is watching for the reinstatement of banned accounts with the potential to negatively impact both brand safety and the overall quality of the environment. Changes in staff, she said, “would result in a decline in service.”

“Yes, we are concerned for our clients’ investment,” she said, adding that Dentsu is prepared with “alternative solutions” for how it allocates advertising dollars. “We already have seen clients halting their Twitter investment as we are all extremely cautious in this transition to new ownership,” she said. “We are also advising clients on alternatives for investment as well.”

In a statement to The Message, Canadian Media Directors’ Council president Shannon Lewis said that with the overwhelming majority of Twitter’s revenue coming from advertising, Musk’s view on content moderation policies “has to change.”

“As leaders at the CMDC and with our Canadian Media Manifesto, we are on a mission to support responsible, brand-safe, inclusive and sustainable media ecosystems,” she said.

Chris Powell