The Corporate Affairs Q&A – Carolyn Esser, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Darktrace

As part of our The Corporate Affairs Q&A series, the team at Grayling recently sat down with Darktrace’s Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Carolyn Esser. We talked about Carolyn’s experiences building the Corporate Affairs division at Darktrace, how her team is navigating the complex external landscape and Carolyn’s advice to fellow Corporate Affairs professionals. We hope you enjoy reading the interview.

What attracted you to join Darktrace as their Chief Corporate Affairs Officer?
It was a unique opportunity to both build a Corporate Affairs function from scratch and join an innovative company at a very interesting time in its development. It was a pivotal moment for the business – Darktrace had just IPO’d in the year before I joined and this was a chance to join the company as it embarked on its next phase of growth and maturing journey. I inherited a small team that was primarily focused on technology PR which had been embedded in the Marketing team and there was an exciting remit to build on this and create a fully-fledged integrated Corporate Affairs team.

What does your role at Darktrace look like today?
I’d describe the last 18 months as building the plane while flying it, but we’ve now got to a place where we have a strong team across the different Corporate Affairs disciplines that is aligned with the business’ needs. Our team now spans technology communications, corporate communications, digital channels, owned content, public affairs and policy, employee engagement, ESG and DEI. My role is very much focused on ensuring that all of those areas are working in harmony – with each other and into other parts of the business – to support the company from a trust and reputation building perspective as it continues to grow globally.

Tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced building this Corporate Affairs team.
I wouldn’t frame it as a challenge per se but what I’ve been very focused on is driving visibility across the team. I want team members to absolutely be experts in their areas of specialism, but I also want team members who are passionate about working cross-function.

There are two parts to this. The first is that, when we have a big project, we need people who will turn their hand to something that is perhaps outside of their traditional ‘swim lane’ in order to help the business deliver. The second is creating a culture where individuals are connecting the dots between different areas of work in our team and beyond into the teams with partner with to deliver impact.

To give an example, when we look to drive a particular set of policy outcomes, we very much don’t see that as just the responsibility of the colleagues looking after public affairs and policy. We want to think about how media relations or digital communications or owned content can play a role in accelerating impact.

Are there events in the wider external landscape that you are particularly focused on when developing Darktrace’s Corporate Affairs strategy?
The last few years have seen a large number of exogenous shocks – whether that’s the Covid pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war or global inflation and interest rates rising to levels not seen for decades. My hope for 2024 is we’ll see a slightly more settled period with fewer of these types of events. In more settled times, there is the opportunity for businesses to go on the front foot and that’s what we are focused on in our own Corporate Affairs strategy for Darktrace this year.

2024 is a year of huge elections – the US, the UK, the EU and many more. How does that impact Darktrace and your broader Corporate Affairs plans?
I think a year with so many elections really focuses your mind on how you can engage with stakeholders in the most effective way for your business through a period of significant transition. Point one is obviously that elections bring varying degrees of change (depending on their outcome) and you need to prepare for that. But when looking at Public Affairs, I would also distinguish between the political stakeholders (who may change) and the non-political policymakers and influencers (e.g. civil servants, industry bodies) who are likely to stay the same – so perhaps this is a time when you give extra attention to the stakeholders who you know will remain key regardless of electoral outcomes.

I also think it’s crucial for any successful Public Affairs plan that you are really interrogating whether engagements are delivering a business outcome. It’s all well and good building a wide range of contacts but this shouldn’t happen just for the sake of it – it needs to be aligned to business goals.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in a career in Corporate Affairs today?
Our business is all about stakeholder relationships and building trust so you can support your organisation’s license to operate. I remember early in my career there was a big focus on taking journalists out to build relationships, and ultimately the principles behind that are correct. I would encourage anyone starting their career to ask themselves the question: “What is my unique approach to stakeholder engagement?’. We all build relationships, and build trust, in slightly different ways. Early in your career you should take the opportunity to observe how others around you are doing this and what pieces of this might work for you, then you will have a strong foundation for success.

I think the other thing that’s hard about Corporate Affairs is that so much of it leans on your experience and judgement. If you’re an accountant, there’s broadly a right answer. You go through an audit process, there’s broadly a set of things that you need to check, there’s a set of fixed outcomes. Corporate Affairs is not like that – so much of the work at a senior level is making calls on what the right thing to do it with little empirical evidence and a lot rests on how you judge the response from the people you are trying to influence . I think a big thing is, right from early in your career, exposing yourself to situations and to people where you’ll be able to gain experience on how to make the right judgement.

Finally, I’d say you mostly learn by doing. You’ll make mistakes along the way but if you learn from those and surround yourself with thoughtful people who can be great advisors then you’ll find that this pushes you along the road to success.

If you are interested in learning more about Grayling’s work in Corporate Affairs then please contact Jack Storry.