Breaking Down the Open AI Timeline with Fintech PR

By: Sarah Ikalowych

The Open AI saga provides key takeaways for financial services and public relations experts

Artificial intelligence has been one of the hottest-button topics of late. It has been plagued with skepticism since it first broke on the market, starting all the way back in 1984 with the first Terminator movie, and Arnold’s famous promise. More recently, issues with bad actors using AI technology for fraudulent activities have been dominating the news cycle, with voice scams, deepfakes, phishing emails, and more being huge issues for consumers in 2023.

However, the conversation on the emerging technology has been largely without internal drama… until now. Open AI, the leading AI company and creator of the language processing tool ChatGPT, was caught in the headlines when they suddenly fired – and then, re-hired – their CEO and co-founder Sam Altman, all within the span of a few days. If you think this sounds like a fintech PR pro’s nightmare, you’re absolutely right. We’re going to break down the drama, one step at a time, through a public relations lens and explain how we see what went down.

 The Climb – 2023

With the introduction of ChatGPT in 2022, Open AI became a formidable force in emerging tech, and Altman became one of the most sought-after subject matter experts in the space. ChatGPT as a product has received both positive and negative press on all topics, with skepticism surrounding AI versus the possibilities it could unlock, questions about the integrity of using it for work or school versus the potential it has for making a job more seamless or a customer’s experience more elevated, issues with it enhancing crime versus how it can help thwart criminals, and more. While it may not seem that way, being able to discuss so many angles is actually a goldmine for public relations. The more talking points we have on a topic, the better, and subject matter experts need to be able to speak through the good and the bad, something Altman has proved that he is very good at doing.

Trouble at the Top – November 17th

However, Altman began clashing with the board of directors of the company over the direction in which they were heading, and other issues. This got so bad that in an impromptu meeting on the afternoon of November 17th, the Friday before a holiday week, Open AI’s board fired Sam Altman for having not been “consistently candid in his communications with the board”, and demoted company president and Chairman of the Board Greg Brockman from his position, with CTO Mira Murati replacing Altman as CEO. As vague as that may sound, the following communications and thought processes from the board were even less clear. From a PR perspective, the less clarity, the bigger the concealed problem, and the less the folks making the unclear decree can be considered the guilt-free party. NOT a good look.

To make matters (visually, and actually) worse, Open AI’s closest partner and key investor, none other than THE Microsoft Corporation, was informed of the changes at the top of the company just ONE MINUTE before the rest of the world found out on the 17th. This move speaks for itself- it showcases a rushed, unplanned, and unprepared decision that feared backlash and feedback. The fact that this nonexistent “heads up” was also publicized reflects even more poorly on Open AI and their rash decision making.

A few hours later, Brockman announced his resignation from Open AI.

Actions Have Consequences – November 18th-20th

The next day, November 18th, Microsoft released a statement affirming their commitment to their partnership with Open AI. Yet, one day later, on November 19th, they announced that they had hired both Altman and Brockman to lead a brand-new in-house research unit. With this move, Microsoft is truly showing Open AI how it’s done when it comes to public-facing communications in a crisis you did not ask to be involved in.

As staff starts to come back to work on November 20th following a raucous news weekend, the internal revolt begins. Nearly all of Open AI’s employees signed an open letter demanding that the board not only reinstate Altman and Brockman, but also all resign, or else they will jump ship to Microsoft’s new unit being headed by their former leaders. Additionally, OpenAI’s other co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever came out and stated his regret for his part in what happened to Altman, his former partner, and Brockman, and he even signed the open letter along with the numerous staff members. More chaos ensues as Open AI changed their mind again about who should be CEO, and appointed Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear as their third CEO in just as many days. Later that day, Murati posted her own stance of solidarity with her former colleagues as she shared a picture of herself with Altman, Brockman, and a few others with the not-so-cryptic caption “still working on it…” A public staff revolt? Board member regrets? Three CEOs in three days? Social media pictures? At this point, things are moving faster than any PR pro can keep up with, and we are long past the time where any crisis communications plans are still intact. After all, who could plan for THIS? It’s time to let the chips fall where they may, and just try to keep the press inquiries about what in the world is happening at bay.

The Chips Have Fallen – November 21st

These reactions did not take long to reverberate, as late in the evening on November 21st, Open AI shared this statement on X:

Altman is fully reinstated, and nearly the entire board who participated in the coup are now removed. In the end, Arnold’s promise not only rang true for his character in Terminator, but for Altman as well. However, one took a little less time than the other. Finally, a resolution. While there may be some ridicule and plenty of press questions over how the past few days went down, the ride is over, and normal(ish) activities can resume. Time to let Open AI out their heads down, continue their work, and pump out news that will mellow out the drama and remind everyone why they are here.

As much of a roller coaster as this journey may have been for all Open AI staff, journalists, and fintech PR pros trying to keep up, it seems that the resolution gave everyone (except the revolting board members) what they wanted. Open AI can continue on as normal, journalists got a wild few days of fun stories and excitement, and us fintech PR pros got to watch the chaos from afar and analyze every move. However, some questions do still remain. Mainly, why DID the board decide to turn on Altman? We may not know the answer to that soon, but trust and believe, we’ll continue to keep our eyes on any additional fallout and provide our thoughts and analysis as it comes.

Our newsletter delivers Wonders & Blunders

Sign up for our weekly newsletter for the latest news, trends and financial advice in the fintech world.

"*" indicates required fields

woman holding cell phone with newsletter

Ready for results?
Let's connect.

Want to work with KCD PR? Receive a 15-minute no obligation consulting session.