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Why OpenAI's comms strategy was a tragic fail amidst the Sam Altman ousting saga

Why OpenAI's comms strategy was a tragic fail amidst the Sam Altman ousting saga

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Artificial intelligence (AI) firm OpenAI has been dominating headlines over the past couple of days as its board fired co-founder and CEO Sam Altman without warning and proper communication to its staff, and then had to re-hire him after significant internal and global uproar. 

In a surprise statement late last week, the board of directors of OpenAI said that Altman's departure came after a "deliberative review process" by the board. The discussions concluded by saying that Altman was "not consistently candid in his communications" with the board which ultimately hindered its ability to exercise its responsibilities. 

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"The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI," it said. It then added that chief technology officer Mira Murati was appointed as interim CEO to lead OpenAI. 

A sequence of confusing events that then followed

Almost immediately following Altman's exit, tech giant Microsoft, which is also a major investor in OpenAi, swept him up. Chairman and CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella took to X to share that Altman and fellow OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman would be joining the company to lead a new advanced AI research team. Brockman has announced that he would be leaving OpenAI as well following Altman's dismissal. 

"We remain committed to our partnership with OpenAI and have confidence in our product roadmap, our ability to continue to innovate with everything we announced at Microsoft Ignite, and in continuing to support our customers and partners," said Nadella. 

Following an outpouring of support online, Altman took to X to say that the day was a "weird experience". Other individuals such as Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures who was an early backer of OpenAI and Wojciech Zaremba, co-founder of OpenAI took to social media to express their support of Altman. OpenAI's chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who is also part of the board, also expressed regret for his part in the dismissal of Altman. 

On 20 November, over 500 employees at OpenAI reportedly threatened to resign if the company's board of directors did not step down. In a letter that was seen by CNN, employees accused the board of mishandling Altman's dismissal and claimed that they had failed to provide sufficient evidence for the accusation that Altman had not communicated properly with the board. Staff said that they would follow Altman to Microsoft if the board did not step down as their actions made it clear that they were "incapable of overseeing OpenAI".

"Nadella and my top priority remains to ensure OpenAI continues to thrive. We are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers, the OpenAI [and] Microsoft partnership makes this very doable," said Altman in a post on X following the news. 

However, just a day after this on 22 November, OpenAI announced that they would be reinstating Altman. "We have reached an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO with a new initial board of Bret Taylor (Chair), Larry Summers, and Adam D'Angelo. We are collaborating to figure out the details," the tech company said in a statement on X. 

Altman then took to X to say that he loves OpenAI and everything that he has done in the past few days has been in service of keeping the team and mission together. 

"When I decided to join Microsoft on Sunday evening, it was clear that was the best path for me and the team. With the new board and with Nadella's support, I’m looking forward to returning to OpenAI, and building on our strong partnership with Microsoft."

Brockman, in tandem, also announced that he had "un-quit" and that he was back with the OpenAI team. 

Nadella added that he is encouraged by the changes to the OpenAI board and that he believes that this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance.

He added in an X post that the team talked and agreed that they have a key role to play along with the OpenAI leadership team in ensuring the company continues to thrive and build on its mission.

"We look forward to building on our strong partnership and delivering the value of this next generation of AI to our customers and partners," he said. 

The failure in communications on all fronts

Throughout the entire situation, a key point to note was that communication was a sore point. Firstly, the board at OpenAI failed to communicate its reasons for terminating Altman which led to staffers threatening to quit over a lack of proper information. In the world of social broadcasting, this led to many key stakeholders such as Sutskever taking to their personal social media platforms to issue contradictory statements that added to the growing confusion and also created more distrust around the leaders of the company. 

How could they have handled it better? The answer simply would have been to be concise, responsive and to show empathy, according to Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and managing director at PRecious Communications.

"In times like this, communications have to show commitment about the way forward, offer cooperation with the stakeholders and express empathy about how people feel - while being clear about the direction moving forward," he said. 

He added that these are board room level decisions which is why there can't be any lead-up to the announcement, leaving very little time to prepare a proper communications plan. However, brands need to make sure they have an aligned internal and external message for all key stakeholders, also showing empathy towards people being caught surprised who have worked closely with Altman.

"In a situation like this, you might not have all the answers on hand, and therefore might need to stagger answers especially to internal stakeholders over time - from a general announcement to townhalls and individual conversations," said Voedisch, adding:

Show that you are in control by having a communications plan - even if it's not very detailed - and have open communications channel especially internally.

Voedisch went on to say that a lack of communication is akin to creating a vacuum of information that will attract confusion and speculation. 

"This lack of communication has significantly damaged OpenAI's brand and its lead in the fast-evolving field of AI, leaving a big question mark on the company's future," he added. 

Agreeing with him, Syed Mohammed Idid, general manager strategic communications and stakeholder engagement at West Coast Expressway said that in any industry, transparency and timely communication are the bedrock of trust. OpenAI's initial lack of clarity regarding Sam Altman's dismissal resulted in widespread speculation and eroded public confidence, he said. 

"A robust crisis communication strategy should be proactive, providing stakeholders with a clear understanding of the situation. This approach is not dissimilar to our practices at West Coast Expressway, where openness and timely updates are integral to managing expectations and fostering trust," he said. 

He added that in today's digital age, social media plays a pivotal role in shaping public perception. Navigating social media commentary, thus, requires a thoughtful and measured approach.

"OpenAI's communication team must actively engage with online discussions, addressing concerns and fostering a positive narrative. In the infrastructure sector, we understand the significance of online reputation management, employing strategies to amplify positive stories and address concerns swiftly," he said. 

Rebuilding trust

With Altman back at the helm, OpenAI will now have to gradually restore trust in the firm and its people, something that will be helped with effective communication. 

Rebuilding trust will be a gradual process, requiring consistent and transparent engagement with stakeholders, said Syed. "Speculating on the future and the resilience demonstrated in overcoming these challenges will likely shape OpenAI's trajectory positively," he said.

Voedisch added on by saying that to restore trust, OpenAI needs to be transparent and communicative. They should clearly explain what happened and what steps they are taking to address the situation. They should also work to rebuild stakeholder relationships and demonstrate commitment to their values and goals.

"This will be crucial in regaining investor and public trust as this saga continues to unfold," he said, adding that OpenAI with ChatGPT is a household name and a strong brand.

"Most average users don't even know about the drama, and if they do, they would not worry about it unless it directly affects them," he said. 

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