Firing a successful Global CEO – Sam Altman of OpenAI – Its implications in PR and lessons learnt
20 Dec 2023, By Deya Bhattacharya
The decision to fire – and then rehire – Sam Altman as CEO of OpenAI within the space of a week generated considerable buzz in late November. Hundreds of employees threatened to leave unless Mr Altman was reinstated, and many questions were raised about the decision- making process at the company behind ChatGPT. As things stand at present, Mr Altman is back at the helm and a new board of directors has been hired, with only one of the original board members remaining. And while the storm seems to have cleared for now, leaders and company board members can learn a lot from this incident about communication, judicious decision- making, and how the chain of command should operate.
Clarity is vital, especially in high-profile cases
When Sam Altman’s firing was initially announced, the board did not issue any clear reason for it other than differences in opinion between Mr Altman and the rest of the board. While it is understandable that details might need to be confidential, unexpected firings – especially of influential leaders in prominent companies – should ideally come with more context. Even in evolving situations like this one, having a steady line of communication with the media helps to avoid unnecessary speculation and keep the focus on the facts.
For leaders, a personal brand can work wonders
There is no denying that Sam Altman has built a lasting brand for himself. As the lead brain behind ChatGPT’s success, he is in many ways synonymous with GPT – and his vision and charisma have inspired widespread loyalty, as given by the number of team members who were ready to resign in solidarity with him. Moreover, Satya Nadella immediately offered him a role at Microsoft’s AI wing, demonstrating the trust that people hold in Mr Altman’s abilities as an AI leader. With a combination of talent, physical presence, and sincere grit, leaders can make themselves indispensable – and this is an endearing quality that leaders today could emulate. At the same time, companies should not allow themselves to be swayed by brand value alone. If a leader is proven to be guilty of actual misconduct, they should absolutely be removed, regardless of how popular they are.
How much autonomy should the board have in these cases?
A company must remain accountable to its people, including both customers and employees. The board of directors, as representatives of the shareholders, are authorised to take big decisions – but to do so unilaterally and without clear reasons is likely to create an image of high-handedness. In case decisions like the firing of the CEO need to be taken, communication with the relevant stakeholders should be mandatory. As it is, the OpenAI board ended up being questioned and fired, and some of those who initially supported his firing later stated that the decision was taken too hastily. People deserve to know what is happening and why, and clear processes for that will help to smoothen such transitions and make employees feel like they are involved.
A cautionary note on the spread of AI
In the case of OpenAI, one cannot ignore the other side of the argument. Based on available reports, Mr Altman wanted a more fast-paced approach to growing ChatGPT, particularly the option to create a marketplace for consumer GPTs. The board, on the other hand, wanted a more cautious approach – and this disagreement is what precipitated the firing. While going nuclear was not a good solution, AI at scale is a relatively new phenomenon and it is always better to be careful about its impact and reach. It was announced on December 19 that the new board of OpenAI can, in fact, overrule Sam Altman’s decisions when it comes to safety aspects of new AI releases. This is, overall, a prudent measure.
In the Information Age, good leadership and good PR must go hand in hand
Today’s audiences always want to know what’s going on – indeed, they demand it as their right. A prominent company like OpenAI was bound to attract media buzz, and it is likely that a stronger media relations strategy would have softened the hit that the board of directors took to their image. While it remains to be seen how well the new OpenAI board does, this incident brings home the vital importance of having a sound PR plan to convey and explain major boardroom decisions to the public. Even if yours is a small company, we highly recommend creating these lines of media communication and always having plausible explanations for each move. And if you need tailored assistance with that, we at Star Squared PR would be delighted to help out.