Upskill or go extinct
Given all the change coming at companies, corporate affairs is under equal pressure to adapt, says Whitlam – which requires constant upskilling, more often than not on practitioners’ own dime.
“At the very senior level, the role is becoming less about the technical capabilities – which once were writing and the basic forms of communication – and much more about judgment, understanding the business, being able to influence through having high EQ, being ahead of the game,” says Whitlam.
“Having that resourceful or resilient nature and being able to bring the outside in – these are things that we don’t get taught. These are things that you have to develop as a leader. And so you have to invest in yourself,” she adds. “There were many years where large corporations developed their people and put them through every single program in the world to continue developing. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Whitlam uses the current macro environment – probably never more challenging – as a case in point.
“Look at climate change, the pandemic, our relationship with China – three major issues that no one has a solution for. But in most cases, the communications function is looked upon to help navigate out of that through communicating with customers and keeping employees updated on what the company is doing. And there is no rulebook. There is nothing that shows them how to do that.”
In her view, the corporate affairs execs that are attempting to bridge those gaps are in the minority.
“Probably 40 per cent [are doing it] or have a sense of the importance of it and therefore are trying to understand it,” says Whitlam. “I don’t blame that on the function: The world that we’re all living in has changed so much in the last 12 months alone. Coming up to speed with that while trying to influence and help your organisation get its head around it at the same time is challenging.”