© Tobias Tanzya
GEOPOLITICS AND STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION
The world has seen several geopolitical upheavals lately – may it be the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the struggle between China and the U.S. for supremacy, or climate change. They have one thing in common: They have disrupted our political and economic system and changed the geopolitical framework.
At the Leadership Forum 2023, Ansgar Zerfaß discussed with the Chief Communication Officers Nina Schwab-Hautzinger (BASF), Enno Harks (BP), Jan Müller (Swiss Re), and Lars Rosumek (E.ON) how communications departments can anticipate risks and respond to geopolitical events.
The most challenging geopolitical upheavals
Looking back, the war in Ukraine was the most challenging turning point for all four panelists. Their companies struggled with political insecurity, the lack of gas supply, soaring prices, and the spin-off of Russian business entities. And above all: They had to take immediate action, leaving no time to think decisions through.
Dr. Nina Schwab-Hautzinger (BASF)
“Geopolitical risks have gained in importance and require much more attention by the communication department.”
The chemical company BASF, for example, which accounts for four percent of Germany’s gas consumption, was hit hard by the gas shortages. BP wanted to sell its Russian business, which comprised 20% of the overall business, but couldn’t find a buyer. E.ON, Germany’s largest energy provider, encountered a loss of confidence among the German population. And Swiss Re – the reinsurer – faced significant financial losses because insurance does not cover war damages.
But it’s not only the war in Ukraine that requires attention. Jan Müller reported that Swiss Re found itself in a battle on ESG targets between US democrats and republicans because they had joined the US Net Zero Insurance Alliance.
Anticipating geopolitical risks
The communication department is in an excellent position to anticipate geopolitical developments as it has installed listening and monitoring tools. Being alerted early on is a prerequisite to analyzing the risks that go along and taking appropriate actions.
E.ON, for example, publishes an internal Trend Radar that analyzes and presents critical issues to the top management once a month. “The communication department contributes its expertise and proposes hot topics,” explains Lars Rosumek.
BP has a dedicated Political Assessment Center observing geopolitical risks for the European market. “In each country, one person is responsible for that,” explains Enno Harks.
Enno Harks, BP Europe
„If Europe becomes less dependent on gas and oil, it will automatically minimize geopolitical risks. Because renewable electricity is produced locally.“
At BASF, the communication department runs stakeholder analyses, collects reputational data, and conducts small trends studies. “We share these insights with relevant teams and use them to inform our strategic communications planning”, says Nina Schwab-Hautzinger.
Swiss Re operates its own research institute – the Swiss Re Institute. “Approximately 300 researchers scan new emerging risks and publish the findings in the annual SONAR report,” says Jan Müller.
The important role of communications
Geopolitical upheavals are emotionally charged and can quickly lead to internal and external controversies. “Taking a stand on critical issues and developing narratives and messages is essential”, says Nina Schwab-Hautzinger, and adds: “Internal communication is key”. That’s why the BASF communication team shares these messages internally with all BASF employees, guiding the team worldwide to speak the same language.
Dr. Jan Müller, Swiss Re
„A company shouldn’t just take a stance on critical social or political issues. It’s more important that we lead the way in how we act and implement concrete measures.“
However, developing messages that fit all regional entities is not easy, as Lars Rosumek and Jan Müller confirm. Sometimes countries might have a completely different perspective on geopolitical events or issues. “It became very obvious with the role of China or how employees worldwide assessed the Black Lives Matter movement”, said Jan Müller. “We had to find an adequate response in order not to increase tensions within the workforce.”
A slightly different way is chosen by BP. “We try to avoid geopolitical issues in our external communication strategy”, said Enno Harks. As a matter of fact, taking a public stand on critical issues can lead to shitstorms.
Lars Rosumek, E.ON
“Companies will always get a headwind because societies have become deeply polarized.”
Many companies experienced escalating internal discussions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example Siemens Healthineers. “It requires a lot of time and resources to monitor and moderate these controversies”, reported Matthias Krämer, Corporate Vice President Corporate Communications. He is joined by other CCOs who report similar cases.
Overall, the panelists hope for more time and space to discuss geopolitical upheavals and their effects on their businesses and on societies in general. A more open and unbiased discussion is needed. These days, issues are quickly scandalized, leaving no room to explain underlying reasons.
Enno Harks is Director of External Affairs & Communication at BP Europe.
Dr. Jan Müller is the Head of Group Communications at Swiss Re.
Lars Rosumek is SVP of Group Communications and Political Affairs at E.ON.
Dr. Nina Schwab-Hautzinger is the Head of Corporate Communications & Government Relations at BASF.