Linda Yaccarino’s calamitous interview offers a valuable lesson for all business leaders

The recently installed CEO of X Corp crashed and burned on stage at this year’s Code Conference. Her mistakes serve as a masterclass in how not to handle live media events

X Ceo, Linda Yaccarino, Speaking At Code Conference 2023 (1)
X Corp’s Linda Yaccarino (right) looked out of her depth several times during her interview with CNBC’s Julia Boorstin 

A mere 25 minutes into her scheduled 45-minute interview at the Code Conference 2023 last week, X Corp’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, was already grasping for the emergency exit. 

“I wish we could have spent more time talking about the scope of accomplishments,” she said in an apparent bid to wrap up the discussion, before being reminded that there was still time for questions. 

“I’ll wait until they give me the hook,” Yaccarino added, checking her watch while wearing the expression of someone desperate to be hauled off stage.

That exchange followed a tense round of questioning from CNBC’s senior tech correspondent, Julia Boorstin, before a live audience at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Laguna Niguel, California. Clips of her toe-curling interview were promptly shared across social media.

Yaccarino’s list of blunders included not having the X app on her phone’s home screen as she spoke of the platform’s “ferociously loyal” user base. Yet several X Corp competitors – including Instagram, Facebook and Blind, the anonymous forum where staff at tech firms complain about their employers – were all visible as she showed delegates her handset.

Although that might seem like a minor oversight, a business leader with Yaccarino‘s profile should be aware that even their smallest actions will be scrutinised. If you’re trying to use a media interview to push your product, you’d better ensure that it looks like you love it. 

Yaccarino provided inconsistent figures when asked about the number of users on the platform and also seemed to be caught off guard when Boorstin asked her about Elon Musk’s proposed plan to charge everyone a monthly fee to access X. 

“Did he say we were moving to it specifically, or is he thinking about it?” Yaccarino asked, appearing not to know the answer herself.

This lack of preparedness was evident throughout. It should be a given that the CEO of a social network knows by heart the number of users it has. 

As the conference’s co-founder, Kara Swisher, noted on X after the interview: “She should have all the numbers and facts at her fingertips… If she’s paid the big bucks, she needs to bring the big guns.”

Safe to say that, if the aim of the session had been to introduce X Corp’s new CEO as a safe pair of hands to manage Twitter’s transition from social network to “everything app”, it missed badly. If the plan was to present a leader who seemed unprepared and out of her depth, it went swimmingly

If the plan was to present a leader who seemed unprepared and out of her depth, it went swimmingly

In fairness to Yaccarino, she’d been wrong-footed by the late addition of Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, to the conference line-up. Roth used his time to discuss the removal of safety features and the rise of disinformation on X, as well as detailing some of the death threats he’d received after leaving the company.

Any media-trained executive would have known to keep their responses to any criticisms brief and look to move the conversation on to more comfortable ground. But Yaccarino chose to spend most of her interview addressing Roth’s allegations, appearing agitated at times. And the worst possible place to lose your cool is in front of a live audience and rolling cameras.

When asked about her own authority in the company and whether she should more accurately be described as a CEO in name only, Yaccarino insisted that she and Musk were working well together. 

“Who wouldn’t want Elon Musk sitting by their side running product?” she replied in all seriousness, completely misreading the room. Her rhetorical question elicited laughter from the audience and many raised hands. 

But Yaccarino can’t be held fully responsible for the Code Conference catastrophe: her comms team didn’t have its finest hour either. It should have prepared its CEO better for the interview – for instance, by helping her to rehearse answers to the most likely difficult questions. 

That said, a key quality for any business leader is the ability to remain composed under pressure, exuding a sense of calm control. On this showing, it’s a skill that Yaccarino urgently needs to work on.