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PR Observations: Sam Altman, the OpenAI board and Microsoft feature in one of the most bizarre episodes of crisis communications seen yet!

Who wins in a Mexican standoff? It’s the person who shoots first, right? Well, not necessarily: they’ll be shot by the person who they didn’t shoot. And what if the first shot wasn’t a kill shot, then they could still shoot back? And… that’s quite enough shooting for one day. The person left standing is the one who wins. Ideally, you all agree to a cautious retreat and sit down for a brew and cake and laugh about how silly the whole situation was.

I’m not sure the OpenAI board, Sam Altman, and that reasonably sized part owner, Microsoft, are quite at the afternoon tea stage yet, but as I write, something of a détente appears to have been reached.

Who won? Erm, probably Altman, maybe Microsoft. Who won the PR battle? Well, this is a question about whether there are some battles you can win at all.

No doubt, a few PR folks in within the respective organisations have greyer hair/a few less fingernails/a pickled liver, depending on how they deal with stress. It’s a situation that will have involved some frantic thumbing through the crisis comms plan to see if it’s relevant and here’s the rub: it rarely is.

‘What do we do if the board sack the founder, everyone revolts, and one of the biggest companies in the world leans on us’ probably didn’t come up in scenario planning.

Not that such planning isn’t worthwhile. It creates clear guidelines on who is responsible, and a we can handle this attitude, which is hard to create in organisations that haven’t prepped. As such, there was rarely a comms vacuum as things unfolded. For sure, we are but months away from a Robert Pattinson and Sir Ben Kingsley-starring Netflix series called ‘Alt Man’ or something selected from a list generated by ChatGPT; but this could have all been so much worse.

Congrats to the teams for remaining bland and timely with their statements – it really is all you can do during such times.

This PR Observations column was written by David Quainton, head of communications at the digital consultancy Emergn. The opinions are his own.

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