Dr. Thomas Speckmann is Head of Corporate Communications at Westenergie AG. We spoke with him about political communication in times of crisis, the sociopolitical contributions of the energy industry and the capacity for dialogue between politics and business.
How can companies manage to find the right words in the face of the shocking violence in Israel?
Although Westenergie does not have business operations in Israel, we were immediately aware that we needed to speak out on this issue, particularly because there are significant Jewish populations in North Rhine-Westphalia, one of our core regions. It was important to us to achieve a balanced communication that reflects the make-up of our company: our workforce represents a cross-section of society with the corresponding diversity of opinions. We also have some employees with roots in the Middle East.
We deliberately decided to post on LinkedIn because our CEO Katherina Reiche has a large number of followers there. In our post, we limited ourselves to two paragraphs: First, we expressed our sincere sympathy with the victims. Second, we clearly pointed out the cynical goal of Hamas’ terrorism: disrupting the reconciliation process between Israel and Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. In addition, we also took action by drawing our employees’ attention to what we consider to be serious aid initiatives for both sides.
How did your company react to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Fortunately, there was a successful test of the interconnectedness of the European energy infrastructure with that of Ukraine before the invasion. Therefore, German energy companies, among them Westenergie, could immediately contribute to Ukraine's energy security. Due to Russian attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure, its maintenance is an ongoing task, in which our company also participates. In addition, we have taken in refugees from Ukraine at our training center.
What was the role of corporate communications in preparing for any energy shortages?
Westenergie's main activity here was to raise awareness, for example by taking part in information events in municipalities or by publishing explanatory pieces. In this way, we helped to communicate what measures had been taken to stabilize the gas supply and when shutdowns might occur. This fitted in with our general political communications strategy: we do less conventional lobbying and tend to avoid bold pronouncements. We express ourselves as calmly as possible, in a rather descriptive way, and point out to politicians the operational consequences of proposed legislation, helping them to put the right pieces of the puzzle together, as it were.
How different are the languages of business and politics?
The energy industry has always been political because of its systemic relevance. My experience from both worlds is that the dividing lines run less between politics and business and more between different interest groups within parties, parliamentary groups, ministries, industries, and associations.
To what extent are companies aware of the importance of political sustainability?
Especially for companies with international supply chains, there is no way around political issues anymore. However, there is often still a lack of concrete strategies for dealing with geopolitical worst-case scenarios such as an invasion of Taiwan by China, which would, for example, have profound consequences for the supply of computer chips to our economy and thus for the further digitization of critical infrastructures such as the energy industry. Germany therefore needs more people with a deep understanding of politics in companies, but unfortunately, unlike in the United States, the United Kingdom or France, for example, there is still a widespread separation between political and private-sector career paths here. As a result, the interconnectedness of the two areas is decreasing rather than increasing, in contrast to the simultaneously tightening connection of political and economic issues. But to master today's crises and challenges, we increasingly need both political expertise in business and economic expertise in politics.