Aaron Kwittken
Aaron Kwittken

Aaron Kwittken, Founder and CEO at PRophet, and CEO, Comms Tech Unit, Stagwell Marketing Cloud, shares his approach for how communications pros can apply AI in the evolving PR world, how it can be used for leadership coaching, and best practices to use it effectively and ethically.

Below are edited excerpts from the full video interview:

How can those in leadership development and coaching effectively use AI?

We can talk about the lizard brain and the monkey brain. Your lizard brain is like the fight or flight. It's moving with muscle memory instinctually, and there's the monkey brain. When I think about AI in coaching and leadership, the application of it isn’t that different than applying it in PR and communications.

You're going to look for four things. 1) What is it that you don't like to do by way of tasks? 2) What is it that takes you too long to do? Sometimes that overlaps with the things you don’t like to do, and sometimes they’re the same. 3) Where is it that you need inspiration, where you're lacking it? And 4) Where is it that you need education or edification?

AI can help in all those areas.

When you think about AI’s application in leadership development and coaching, sure, you can go to applications and record yourself and get instant AI feedback.

That's very transactional. But this is really a very humanistic type of business. When I think about what you're talking about, it's really about iterating, and how do you think in nonlinear ways? We are programmed to think in the same way over and over again. AI helps us expand our boundaries, expand our thoughts, and think in a nonlinear manner, whether it's generative or predictive.

The thing about AI is there was all that hype over ChatGPT: that’s a false flag.

Unfortunately, when you say AI, people think generative. That’s not the future for leaders in coaching or PR. it's about being more predictive. How can I test and learn in my leadership style? It could be a narrative that I'm engaging stakeholders, it could be employees, it could be partners, and it could be customers. How do I test that in the cloud, using AI before I do it in real life so I can better predict outcomes? That's where AI is going to be most impactful.

For our many viewers who are in PR and communications, let's discuss the use of AI in those fields. There's tremendous power in AI. However, with that power can come tremendous potential risks. What are the most important things PR leaders can do to assure that they and their teams are using AI in a way that's appropriate and ethical?

Those are very good questions. The PR industry is still new to this, and AI is operating at velocity. We spend all of our days helping others transform, yet we don't look at ourselves.

I'm seeing that as adoption continues, it's pretty slow: the state of chattiness is high, and the state of readiness is low. I'm seeing more and more agencies and brands experiment. They are creating committees that have to meet weekly and update guidelines they create monthly. These guidelines address things like what large language models should we use, what SLA contracts are we engaging in, and where vendors indemnify us so that, God forbid, if we breach someone's copyright by way of image or text, we're not going to be held legally liable.

Also, there are guidelines and considerations around disclosure. Imagine if President Biden, when he gave a State of the Union address there are credits that rolled afterwards. Imagine the years of work that have been done by the ghostwriter behind bylines, pitches, all sorts of content, and they don't get attribution. By definition, PR people are the invisible hand. We're behind the curtain, but what about disclosure? What about Grammarly?

It's around ensuring we are as transparent as humanly possible.

What protections do we need to be mindful of when we jump into AI, to make sure we do it right?

We have to have a communications engineering mindset. That's not a skill set, It's a mindset. We need to train our people on platforms. It means that we need to view platforms and software not as expenditures, not as a cost, but as investments. It means that we need to have people who are specifically in charge of data, analytics, and innovation on the agency side and the brand side. It means that they need to be in lockstep with people who have a legal understanding of copyright, of contracts, of the corpus of data that we're calling large language models.

You can't just use one large language model. I could be GPT-4, GPT-5, Anthropic, Azure, and Google’s Gemini, which used to be called Bard. The biggest challenge is keeping up with it because it’s moving so fast.

This is a very different model and very capital-intensive. Everybody should have the mindset of renting, not owning, when it comes to these tools. I say this as someone who's had a lot of scar tissue, who's pivoted as an agency guy in building this for four years, and for whom for the first two years it felt like screaming into the wind. I actually call it screaming into the pillow, because no one was listening!

When and how did you first become aware of all of this?

I was inspired by a client of mine called Dataminr. They do something called ground truth, and they’ve been my client for five or six years.

They’re data scientists and neuroscientists, and they taught me about neural networks, machine learning, natural language processing, vector ING, and semantic search versus Boolean search. I was doing crises and issues work for these folks. Most of their customers were public service agencies and law enforcement, media organizations, and financial services. They were they're basically monitoring social media to help validate what's going on from events.

I asked myself if they could do this, why can't I look back at past media coverage, and predict future media interest, reporter interest, and sentiment? If movie studios and book publishers are doing this to determine future commercial viability around a script, why can't we do the same? We're doing it backward, and we're very instinctual.

We think our currency is relationships, yet the world is commoditized. The truth is that we need to replace guessing with knowing, and for data to backstop our instinct.

Every client or boss thinks they're way more interesting than they really are. It's left to the PR people to pick up the pieces and make it interesting. We never had data to say, “Hey, actually, that's not interesting.” We never had that data marketers did, and we just had our instincts. And in my case, good luck and charm.

You have from my perspective, what could easily be two full-time jobs. What do you do to help regulate your stress?

What you call self-care, I call a regulator. In the 70’s and 80’s, they didn’t really identify ADHD and they probably now overdiagnose it. But I clearly had it and have it.

For me, it's all about exercise. I have a lot of energy, and I'm somebody that doesn't sleep a lot. I can't shut my brain off, and the only way to regulate, outside of meds, which I've never taken, is I run, I swim, I bike, I do hot yoga, I do a lot of meditation, and I love sometimes just sitting. I'm obsessed with the New Yorker and the Atlantic, and I listen to podcasts.

I need physical activity to regulate and take care of myself. First and foremost, I've always put my family first. The reason I started my agency 20 years ago, was because if I'm going to work this hard, I might as well work for myself.

I said to my wife at the time, “We’re already in debt, we already have a mortgage. So if this doesn't work, I'll just go find a job.” And it became one of the things I'm most proud of. Being able to give other people opportunities, to grow in their careers, to see folks who worked for me for years go off and get married and have kids and have families and have their own incredible professional endeavors. That is what brings me joy.

You’re a triathlon coach. What has that taught you about leadership?

An old track coach of mine, Bob Waterman, said excellence and comfort can't coexist. That was the buzzer determining learning when I ran cross-country at age 15. I've taken that into my life. I've done many Ironmans and marathons, I like to race competitively.

One of the things you learn as a coach is that you never race against others, you race against yourself, and your personal records.

I remember I used to be a competitive swimmer. You never looked in the lane next to you. If you're running or swimming, you always have to look straight ahead. Anybody who's listening who's an endurance athlete, especially Ironman or triathlon, knows that anything can happen. My background is in crisis and issues, so I always think in terms of possibilities and then probabilities.

I'm prepared for anything. When you're preparing for an endurance event, it's not that dissimilar to preparing for a presentation, a tough meeting, a new business pitch, client counseling, or anything like that. Big or small, preparation and focusing on the end goal, yourself, and managing your time is the most important.

Please share your absolute worst leadership moment, a real point in time when you were not bringing your best as a leader.

We're coming up on the fourth anniversary of George Floyd. I know you're never supposed to date yourself in a in a podcast or YouTube, but here I am dating myself.

I was still managing my agency and trying to start PRophet. We were, I believe, at the beginning of Covid. So we're in lockdown, and we didn't have human connection. And we had, at the time, a very diverse agency by almost every measure you can think of.

I sent out a note and I wasn't really thinking, and, it was from the heart, but I actually quoted Elie Wiesel. I did it, and I wasn't thinking about it. The quote and the intent were right. It was really about silence and violence and how an atrocity against one is a atrocity against all. It was really about that shared history between Jews and Blacks around social justice, of which there is a very rich history.=

A couple of members of the team who are Black reached out to me and they were deeply hurt and offended, saying, “Why couldn't you quote a member of the Black community? Why couldn't you think about what you were saying?” They weren't offended, except that instead of reaching out to them first and talking to them, I just wrote a note to the staff.

Then I got on a call and I lost it, I started crying. There were about 90 people on my staff at the time and I couldn't speak. I was never more embarrassed and felt so vulnerable. I might as well have been standing naked in front of thousands of people. A couple of minutes later, I got the most beautiful notes from mostly people from every ethnicity, every kind of background you can imagine in the agency, saying thank you for being yourself and for not trying to be something else.

I mention that because there's a huge learning experience where I've allowed myself to be vulnerable. I think it's very important that we're human first, and that we're leaders second. I know it sounds funny, but, we shouldn't overthink it, and I really wish I hadn't. I wish I had reached out to others to take input on such a sensitive topic, in the same way that I would advise a client, before sending a note out.

Thank you for sharing that, Aaron. Being willing to be vulnerable, when many people on one’s team may be feeling vulnerable, provides a bond. People want to feel that human connection to their leaders, especially during tough times.

I want to thank David Barkoe of Carve Communications, who first mentioned you in his Taking The Lead interview.


Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching, which empowers PR and communications leaders and executives to breakthrough results via executive coaching, and helps communications agencies achieve their business development, profitability, and client service goals, via consulting and training. You can find him at www.jacobscomm.com, [email protected] @KensViews, or on LinkedIn. You can also subscribe to the Jacobs Consulting and Executive Coaching YouTube channel.