Chris Harihar is executive vice president at Crenshaw Communications, a Mod Op company.
On Friday, OpenAI announced it had fired well-liked CEO Sam Altman, upending the AI industry. This decision, driven by some still-vague AI governance concerns from the nonprofit board, alongside Altman’s for-profit commercialization push, led to a weekend-long saga. Microsoft and other OpenAI investors even tried to influence the board to reconsider and reinstate Altman. Somehow, though, Emmett Shear, ex-Twitch CEO, is now CEO of OpenAI as of Monday.
From a PR perspective, this is a textbook example of how not to do a Friday news dump. In fact, given how it unfolded and how it continues to play out, it could be considered the worst Friday news dump in tech history.
For the uninitiated, a Friday news dump is a PR tactic that tries to blunt the impact of a negative story by releasing it when people are less focused on news and when reporters are less likely to cover it – i.e., late Friday, ahead of a weekend. This past weekend was especially ripe for a news dump with Thanksgiving around the corner and many journalists already out of the office.
But what did OpenAI do wrong, exactly? Friday news dumps can honestly be pretty effective, though this wasn’t.
Here are some of the basic things they botched, along with key lessons for companies considering dropping their own Friday news dump announcements in the future.
No transparency, few details
The Altman announcement was a shocker.
Outside of TikTok, OpenAI is the fastest-growing company in tech, and is at the forefront of the generative AI movement through ChatGPT and DALL-E. It has a major partnership in place with Microsoft. To many, OpenAI is synonymous with the AI category.
Altman’s well-regarded leadership has also made him the face of the AI movement. Beyond that, in less than a year, Altman and OpenAI have fundamentally changed how we work, at least as PR people. All of this heightened the shock of the news and the abrupt announcement raised inevitable and obvious questions.
Unfortunately, OpenAI’s vague statement about Altman being fired for not being “consistently candid in his communications with the board” only added to the mystery. The lack of information, alongside the backdrop of OpenAI’s achievements over the last year, fueled speculation and uncertainty.
Altman’s dismissal appeared to be a very last-minute call. The sequence of events, especially with Altman actively representing OpenAI at public events earlier in the week, suggested the decision was made late in the same week.
Additionally, a timeline emerged where Greg Brockman, an Altman supporter and OpenAI’s president and board chairman, reportedly learned about the decision just minutes before it was made and abruptly resigned. Even key partners like Microsoft were informed almost simultaneously with the public announcement.
The poor PR management cast doubt on the entire OpenAI board and their ability to manage the business. If you can’t get a press announcement’s basics right, will you be a good steward of the company?
Adding to the confusion, OpenAI’s COO Brad Lightcap made a statement on Saturday that did not align with the board’s earlier message. He mentioned, “the board’s decision was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices.”
This seemed at odds with the reasons implied in the initial announcement, leading to more questions and clouding the situation further. If you’re going to dump news on a Friday, the subsequent communications have to be consistent with your initial statement to the market. Anything that deviates or seems misaligned will only create more questions and headaches for all those involved.
No allies or advocates
A crucial aspect of handling a Friday news dump successfully is having a network of allies prepared to support your POV if things linger or go sideways on social media and in off-the-record reporter interactions. Altman, with little notice, did this extremely well. Tech execs like Aaron Levie of Box, Marissa Mayer, formerly of Yahoo, and Brian Cheskey of Airbnb publicly expressed support for him (and likely lobbied behind the scenes). This advocates network played a key role in shaping the public and media’s perception of the situation.
In contrast, OpenAI’s lack of a similar strategy left a gap in the story. Without influential voices to offer balancing perspectives or support, the company missed an opportunity to manage the story’s direction and impact.
Ultimately, a Friday news dump can be an effective tactic. But, you have to do it the right way. In this instance, OpenAI missed key steps and paid the price. A statement by OpenAI’s new CEO Emmett Shear, I think, says it best: “It’s clear that the process and communications around Sam’s removal has been handled very badly, which has seriously damaged our trust.” Clearly, he understands that the process made the actual decision seem much worse.