The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Elon Musk picked Linda Yaccarino to lead Twitter as CEO

Twitter has struggled to generate revenue since Musk took over as CEO, as advertisers have fretted over his sweeping rollbacks of content moderation.

Twitter CEO Elon Musk, center, speaks with Linda Yaccarino, chairman of global advertising and partnerships for NBC, at the POSSIBLE marketing conference in April in Miami. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)
8 min

SAN FRANCISCO — Elon Musk’s choice of Linda Yaccarino for Twitter CEO appears aimed at solving multiple problems facing the social media site — and the billionaire himself — following his tumultuous takeover of the company in October.

Musk’s rapid changes and unpredictable behavior at Twitter have left many advertisers wary of doing business with the platform, which has revalued itself at less than half of the October $44 billion as it struggles to generate enough revenue. Musk, meanwhile, has faced business pressures elsewhere in his empire — as investors have urged him to return his attention to Tesla, the world’s most valuable automaker and the key to his massive fortune.

Yaccarino, an advertising executive who served as NBCUniversal’s chairman of global advertising and partnerships, brings vast experience generating revenue and partnerships with key brands, and she will also need to balance the need to implement Musk’s policies aimed at maximizing his vision of “free speech.”

Musk has loosened many of the site’s rules, let back on thousands of banned accounts and has gotten himself into trouble on occasion with tweets, including one spreading misinformation about an attack on Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s husband. Former Twitter employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, expressed skepticism that much would change under a leader picked by Musk.

During her tenure, Yaccarino consolidated many of NBCUniversal’s individual marketing and sales team — for Bravo TV, Peacock, USA, Syfy and other NBCU operating units — into one centralized marketing and sales structure for the company. She is well-known among CEOs and marketing executives and can serve as a “Band-Aid” to some of Musk’s fractured relationships in that arena, a person close to her who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters told The Washington Post.

NBCUniversal announced her departure from the company Friday morning.

“It has been an absolute honor to be part of Comcast NBCUniversal and lead the most incredible team,” Yaccarino said in a statement. “We’ve transformed our company and the entire industry — and I am so proud of what we’ve accomplished together.”

Musk and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

Musk announced Yaccarino was taking the helm in a tweet, saying he was excited to welcome her.

She “will focus primarily on business operations, while I focus on product design & new technology,” he said. “Looking forward to working with Linda to transform this platform into X, the everything app.”

Later Friday, Musk said he and Yaccarino would hold a Twitter Spaces — a forum using the app’s live audio feature — as soon as she was ready.

Yaccarino has worked closely with Twitter, which counts NBCUniversal as its largest media partner, on trying to squeeze advertising dollars out of big sports moments such as the World Cup and the Olympics. Just last week, NBCU announced an expanded deal with Twitter for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, which includes a “Paris 25-Day Countdown” featuring daily athlete or event clips leading into the Opening Ceremonies, and real-time highlights and an exclusive live Twitter show during the Games.

Yaccarino has praised Musk publicly at different moments, as she did after his appearance last month on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and she has told colleagues that people get hung up on his erratic tweets but that she sees him as ready to establish business partnerships behind the scenes.

In 2018, Donald Trump named her to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition. As Ad Council chair, Yaccarino partnered with the Biden White House in 2021 to create a coronavirus vaccine campaign featuring Pope Francis.

Yaccarino has worked at NBCUniversal for nearly 12 years — with her team generating more than $100 billion in ad sales since 2011, per her company bio. She previously served as NBC’s chair for advertising and client partnerships and as president of cable entertainment and digital advertising sales. Before NBC, Yaccarino worked for Ted Turner at Turner Broadcasting Systems, where she spent almost 20 years.

A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, Yaccarino got her start in the media industry as an intern at NBCUniversal’s media planning department, where, she told Salesforce, her “love affair” with media began. She spent nearly two decades in advertising, marketing and acquisitions at Turner before moving back to NBC, where she’s worked for more than a decade.

The timing of naming a new CEO is beneficial for Musk. Tesla holds its annual shareholder meeting Tuesday in Austin. Musk has hinted, as recently as Thursday night, at the need to demonstrate his commitment to the electric vehicle company.

“We believe Musk leaving CEO of Twitter earlier than originally thought by the end of the year is a positive development for Tesla as well as SpaceX with Musk needing to spend more and more time on these golden child platforms rather than Twitter,” Dan Ives, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, said in an analyst note. Ives praised Musk “finally reading the room” and “trying to balance Twitter, Tesla, and SpaceX as CEOs an impossible task that needed to change.”

“There is heavy lifting ahead for Twitter on the digital advertising front as the platform now needs to get back advertisers while monetizing its user base,” Ives wrote.

Musk said little more about Yaccarino, but on Friday he liked tweets suggesting her appointment freed him up to focus on Twitter’s technical aspects, as well as devote more attention to Tesla. Other tweets he liked said Twitter must be “a platform for everyone" and addressed right-wing criticism about what Yaccarino’s being tapped for the job might mean for his “free speech” approach.

Since taking over Twitter, the company has shed around 80 percent of its staff of 7,500 and embarked on significant cost-cutting that has at times affected the reliability of the site, which has faced repeated outages prompted by site changes. Meanwhile, Musk’s team has restored thousands of banned accounts, and brought back high-profile users such as Trump and the Babylon Bee, Musk’s favorite self-described Christian satirical site. Musk has also pushed a curated, algorithmically driven timeline and a subscription model that charges $8 a month for Twitter’s signature blue badges denoting verification, redefining a model he decried as a “lords & peasants system.”

Some advertisers continued to express caution about the trajectory of the site under Musk.

“There are still a lot of unknowns about the overall direction of the platform, including how our data would be protected,” said Maria Raynal, spokesperson for General Motors, which paused its Twitter advertising after Musk’s takeover. “With a major competitor owning the platform — it’s prudent for us to make sure we are protecting our data, our brands and our customers. There are still a lot of unanswered questions around the issue of data protection.”

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said Yaccarino’s appointment is “a hopeful sign” that the company could make changes to more boldly fight the spread of bigotry and extremism on its platform.

“I mean, this is a very successful advertising executive who spent the last two decades building … [some] of the biggest media platforms in the world,” he said. “I’m hopeful that she will realize that alienating users and offending the public and spreading hate is bad for business.”

Musk’s controversial moves have at times resulted in backlash. A coalition of more than 60 civil rights and advocacy groups launched an advertiser boycott last year in response to Musk’s mass layoffs. Twitter saw an explosion of hate speech in the immediate aftermath of Musk’s takeover, and a Washington Post analysis later found its algorithmic changes were pushing extremist content into accounts’ “For You” pages.

Free Press co-CEO Jessica González, whose media advocacy group helped organize the boycott, argued that Musk’s continued high-level involvement with the company means Twitter’s content moderation and business practices likely won’t change.

“With Musk remaining the executive chair and staying on as CTO … I’m not sure that it matters who the new CEO is because they won’t actually have the power to provide an adequate check and balance on the chaos that is Elon Musk,” she said.

González said the coalition behind the boycott is still pressuring marketers to pause spending on the social media site “until we’ve seen some concrete assurances that it is going to be more committed to civil and human rights.”

“Instead, what we’ve seen is them rolling back not just the rules that protect users but the staff and the workforce that actually enforces those rules,” she said.

Beyond advertisers, Twitter and Musk have faced pressure from users and some who backed Musk’s bid.

After Twitter rolled out a policy limiting users’ ability to promote outside social media websites, before reversing the decision, Musk launched an unscientific poll on whether he should step down.

Of more than 17 million votes, 57.5 percent of respondents said Musk should give up the role.

Musk agreed, saying he would relinquish the job upon finding someone “foolish enough to take the job.”