An Open Letter to a Proponent of AI-Assisted Exec Comms Strategy

(And the proponent's open response to me.)

David Armano is a veteran marketing communications agency guy who specializes in digital aspects of comms. Last week I ran across a piece he wrote recommending the AI-ification of exec comms, and I was moved to respondThen I sent David what I wrote, and he wrote back. —DM

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Hi, David—

Long time, no talk!

I believe you spoke at the PSA World Conference circa 2017, when you were with Edelman; I believe the subject was on or around how to help corporate executives become more effective on social media.

I see from your recent Substack post that you’re still on this subject. But I have to say, on behalf of the comms pros who make up the Professional Speechwriters Association, the Executive Communication Council and the Higher Education Leadership Communication Council, I wasn’t a big fan of your take, on how AI is going to make some of our folks redundant. (You didn’t say that directly in your piece, but you acknowledged it in a related LinkedIn conversation.)

On Substack, you wrote about “The AI-Enhanced Executive Brand.” Your premise, if I’ve boiled it down fairly via excerpts from your post:

Historically, executives have had robust resources to help draft thought leadership posts and articles, respond to comments, generate profiles, etc. But, it has been hard to get timely insights to react to and turn them into timely content that leverages those insights fully. This all helps to introduce efficiencies as well as more compelling content. With AI and more streamlined teams and resources—the combination of data-informed executive brand strategies and AI-enhanced generative content means executives can publish more effectively, efficiently, and intelligently. 

Moving forward, executive brands will be built with the help of AI and Large Language Models (LLMs), or ELMs (Executive Language Models). However, the adage applies as an “ELM” trained on an executive’s content, voice, tone, etc., which would still need critical intelligence only provided by human insight, informed by data. Suppose timely and relevant insights from conversations, topics and communities are constantly fed into an Executive Language Model. In that case, the small and nimble team working with it has an AI collaborator that is robustly dialed into the context of the subjects it is trained on. 

The key is that the Executive Language Model doesn’t replace the original thought or personality of the executive. However, it does create new efficiencies regarding initial drafts, significant thought pieces, and writing efforts that would take more time to develop. 

David, your immaculate vision here calls to mind the comment of a veteran higher-ed leadership communicator who listened to people talking about how AI would replace him and his colleagues and said incredulously, “Do they have any idea what we do?” 

Let’s break down the problem, as you see it: That traditional “robust” executive communications teams (that you make sound far better staffed than they actually are) fail to generate timely insights … because of a lack of efficiency, somehow. David, you know and I know that the lack here isn’t efficiency: It’s a lack of truly compelling insights, and the dearth of courage, when rare timely insights come, to express them in sufficiently provocative terms.

From my three decades of experience, I’d say this general condition of corporate executive communication never has to do with the sluggishness or the issue-blindness of the executive communication team. It has to do with the reticence of the corporate leaders themselves to say anything the least bit provocative. “I have to convince my leader,” a speechwriter complained to me once, “that it’s okay to be interesting.” 

And since you’ve utterly misdiagnosed the problem, your solution, involving not more human spirit but less—of “Executive Language Models” (and oh, what a soul-gnawing concept that is!)—is as an Onion headline put it years ago, “an inelegant solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Or so it seems to me (and, I suspect, to many of the executive communication pros I know). How does it seem to you? I’d love to run your response.

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David,

Good to hear from you. When we first met back in 2017 while I was at Edelman—I was outlining how social media was changing the world of communications and marketing. Looking back, most of what I outlined has now come to pass. We are at a similar inflection point with advancements in AI. 

A couple of things stand out to me in your open letter in particular:  

“David, you know and I know that the lack here is of compelling insights”

We agree here—compelling insights are critical to all communications and are not easily articulated—but what is really lacking is the ability to find and ultimately synthesize the vast amounts of data points that could help inform communications in a meaningful way—when this is done, it provides “actionable intelligence”—the missing link to key insights.

“I’d say this general condition of corporate executive communication almost never has to do with the sluggishness or the issue-blindness of the executive communication team. It has to do with the reticence of the corporate leaders themselves to say anything the least bit provocative.”

We also have some agreement here (on the provocative part). 

This is the paradox—most executives are reticent to take risks or to be overtly provocative. And yet, the human writers who support them, end up putting out content which has a POV but often stops short of being “controversial.” I believe large language models absolutely play a role in creating content that keeps executives visible, relevant, and engaged. The approach I outlined is refining the role of the writers to take the first draft provided by the ELM and take it the rest of the way. Using the insights and AI assisted first drafts, gets the exec comms team to the writing sooner, where more time and attention can be put toward refinement. 

The key to the vision I outlined is in the title “AI-Enhanced”, meaning that the tech enhances the output and the team. I disagree with you somewhat on the value of efficiency: efficiency is incredibly important to a business and its shareholders, and it is my opinion that many executive communications teams could be more efficient (and effective) using the approach I have outlined.

Thanks for the thoughtful open letter and for providing the opportunity to respond.

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Your turn, reader: What do you think? (See a couple pungent thoughts at my personal site, Writing Boots.)

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