May 24, 2023
7 mins

A PR veteran on how to bring your values to work

PRophet’s CEO and founder Aaron Kwittken on career pivots, being a mission-driven PR professional, and the rise of comms tech.
Communications

Introducing PR veteran Aaron Kwittken is no easy feat—he’s got a major list of accomplishments under his belt. He is the CEO and founder of AI-driven SaaS tool PRophet, the CEO of Stagwell Marketing Cloud’s Comms Tech business unit, and the founder and Chairman of global PR and brand strategy agency KWT Global. 

And that just begins to scratch the surface. 

Kwittken is also the host of the Brand on Purpose podcast, which uncovers the stories behind purpose-driven businesses. He’s the former President of PRSA-New York, past president of the Americas for the International Communications Consultancy Organization, and a former board member of the PR Council. Not to mention his work as an adjunct professor at NYU and a guest lecturer at his alma mater, George Washington University. He’s won several industry awards and honors and recently was named a 2021 Top 25 Innovator by Provoke Media. 

He’s also a four-time IRONMAN finisher. 

It’s fair to say that Kwittken takes his own personal and professional advice: Always be moving forward. 

I recently sat down with Kwittken to learn more about his PR background and what drives the career decisions he’s made throughout the years. We cover a wide range of topics but focus mainly on how being a mission-driven PR professional has been at the center of his success. 

But before we dive in, I also want to highlight a huge facet of his career, and the one that brought him to Stagwell Marketing Cloud: His pivot from agency life to building PRophet, a SaaS tool for PR professionals.

“There are many acts in one’s life,” Kwittken told me towards the end of this interview, after we had formally finished and were chatting about vegan cheese and one of our mutual favorite podcasters. 

“I feel like I’m in my third or fourth act right now. My calculus was, well, if the comms tech thing never works out I still have my tradecraft. I know I have agency over what I do.” 

And this interview really shows that. From walking away from clients whose values aren’t in line with his to leaving a global agency he built from scratch to dive into the tech space, Kwittken exercises agency over his career and always keeps moving forward. 

Here’s the interview:

Sarah Dotson: So to start off, can you tell the readers who you are and what you do? 

Aaron Kwittken: I’m Aaron Kwittken, and I am CEO of the Comms Tech business unit of Stagwell Marketing Cloud. I’m also founder and CEO of PRophet, as well as the founder of KWT Global.

SD: Tell me a little bit more about what PRophet and KWT are.

AK: So KWT is a global brand marketing and PR agency with offices in New York, London, LA, and Chicago, headquartered in New York. I founded it at the end of 2005, and we have about 100 employees across multiple sectors doing PR; branding; design work; brand strategy; and corporate reputation, management, ESG, and crisis and issues management, which is my specialty.

And PRophet is one of the first AI SaaS platforms for modern PR folks and communicators. And it is the only one to date that uses both predictive and generative AI. It is built by and for PR pros.

SD: To dig a little bit into your specialty, crisis comms, I imagine it’s very much a partnership with your client’s leadership: If I had to guess, you’re working with HR, you’re working with the CEO, you’re working with CFO. Can you talk to me a little bit more about how that specific branch of PR interacts with others within an organization?

AK: It’s a great question. I’ve long said when I guest lecture that even if you want to go into another brand of marketing or comms, the one skill you must learn—it should just be mandatory for everybody—is how to manage a crisis from a comms standpoint.

And you know, your client is almost always the C-Suite, oftentimes the board is involved, and typically it’s high stakes situations…sometimes self-inflicted, oftentimes things that happen out of your control.

But it’s everything from unplanned executive succession to product recalls, government enforcements to data breaches, privacy issues, executives behaving badly…all sorts of things. I think what I love about it the most is that it is probably the most premium service that you can provide.

The one skill you must learn—it should just be mandatory for everybody—is how to manage a crisis from a comms standpoint.

I was very lucky in that I had great mentors early on in my career, but I also worked on some pretty high-profile crises—even one that resulted in a multi-billion-dollar settlement with the NAACP in the ‘90s. From that, I learned a lot about nuance, narrative management, and crisis. I also how to take back the narrative and to flip the script.

SD: That idea of “flipping the script” or crafting a narrative is something I think a lot about for PR professionals. How do you guide younger folks in their career on being a spokesperson for brands, especially if they’re controversial? What is your philosophy around how your values and the company you work for should line up?

AK: I talk about this quite often—it’s not spoken about enough, and there’s a couple of things I want to say.

One is I think it’s important for young people going into PR to try to experience as many sectors and brands and types of activities as humanly possible early on and to not pigeonhole themselves. And that typically means work for an agency first. 

And if you’re going to go in house, the brand needs to be in line with your values. This is really the same for the clients you take on. It’s kind of like when you take classes at school: You’re going to do better in the classes that you like. You’re going to be more performative for clients that you believe in, right?

If the values of a client don’t line up with your own values, then you should just walk away.

I’ve always been a values-based person. I’ve definitely made some mistakes and worked for some companies that I thought were good or people that I thought were good, but then they ended up being evil.

Of course you need to feed yourself and you need to pay the rent—you don’t always get to choose—but try to find a place and or a vision or a mission or a human that you can believe in.

Be aware of who you’re working with, what you’re doing.

Don’t settle. 

SD: What do you think the biggest challenge for PR professionals is right now, and how can they mitigate those challenges?

AK: There are a couple of different challenges.

The biggest is probably cultivating cultural currency, because the main job of a PR person in a steady state, meaning not crisis state, is to connect a brand, a person or organization to the cultural zeitgeist that and make them relevant and resonant inside of a conversation.

And you want them to be in the conversation in a positive way. If people associate positive things with you, they want to buy your stuff.

This used to be pretty linear and formulaic. And back when I first started—even ten years ago—brands never leaned into social issues.

It was taboo, you know?

If the values of a client don’t line up with your own values, then you should just walk away.

There was no ESG back then, and I think right now, the biggest challenge for PR folks is guiding their clients or the higher ups inside of a brand on how to authentically connect their company to what is going on in the world.

And the first thing that has to happen to make this work is that the Chief Communications Officer should almost always report to the CEO. 

The second is that PR folks should be using tools that help them see around corners and predict what issues are before they become crises in order to tackle them and create opportunities from them. 

And I think that training PR folks to be able to conduct thoughtful research before speaking is really, really important. We’ve historically been a very transactional business, and I think we need to move from doing anything we can to land a story to asking ourselves, “How do I promote my brand and also preserve the brand’s integrity?”

Ultimately, though, this comes from the top. If there’s rot at the bottom it’s because there’s bad water at the top. If you don’t have the right leader, it’s very hard to convince them to be clear-eyed about the issues they should be talking about. 

SD: Any final words of advice? 

AK: You should always be moving forward in your career and in your life. Some people don’t like that you have to embrace change, but I don’t like anything that’s static.

I think it’s really important to be dynamic, and that’s one of the reasons why I started PRophet, because I think that there’s a better way for us to do things now that the technology is accessible. Ten years ago, the technology wasn’t there. We’re talking about AI, natural language processing, and machine learning. These are the things that are helping us see around corners and become more performative. PRophet really opened up a new way for me to move forward in my career. 

I think that sitting still should never really be an option.

Sarah Dotson

Sarah Dotson is the Editorial Content Manager for Stagwell Marketing Cloud.

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