Is it time to add some Soft PoweR in PR?

I had the pleasure and privilege of attending #RTSPECTRA last week. Apart from meeting old friends and making a few new ones, it presented a learning opportunity. There were many nuggets of insight that I picked up. One that stays with me is courtesy of Arun Sudhaman, CEO and editor-in-chief at PRovoke Media, who said “Soft power is as important for corporations and brands as it is for countries.” The context of his comment was about a panel that was decoding the ‘Global South’ and he was throwing light on the importance of helping the ‘Global North’ better understand this new emerging world power. Arun also shared 3 Ls. “Listen. Learn. Let go” and he also added a fourth “loosen up”.

The power of soft power to shape perceptions came into focus and South Korea and its growing influence in the world of cinema, food, and fashion was an example cited. Arun’s comment was just a passing one about how brands and corporations need to embrace this opportunity too.

This got me thinking… what exactly is soft power in the context of corporate and brand reputation? Is it the human face of the organisation? An example of which maybe when the CXO suite lets it’s perfectly manufactured corporate persona breathe a little easier. Opening up the tightly managed profiles and allowing the people to shine through in their authentic and vulnerable and real selves. The difficult balancing act will be finding the answer to  “How much is too much to share?”

Maybe shaping a narrative is actually about letting go a little. Not trying too hard to control it. But instead trying to control the actions and behaviour of the brand or company and then allow the story to be shaped by how people’s experiences are curated.

In a country context, soft power drivers have been film, food, and fun. Education, entertainment, sports, and youth power have played an important role. For instance, in the 1950s jazz musicians were put on the world stage to demonstrate the individualism and creativity inherent in jazz and American society at large. This was done with the intent of leading other countries to relate to the USA, capitalism, and democracy and less with the Soviet Union and communism.

Joseph Nye Jr. (a political scientist) is credited with having coined the term soft power in the 1990s where it finds mention in his book ‘Bound To Lead’. It is defined as “a country’s ability to influence others without resorting to coercive pressure.”

What can a brand or company learn from this playbook?

A fantastic internship program. A fellowship or scholarship program for students. A cool competition that enables the best and brightest minds from your industry segment to win a chance to further hone their skills and knowledge.

An OTT-type show that is rooted in some reality that shaped the brand or corporate. A cool cartoon or animated short film about the brand. An inflight video that captures the fancy of flyers because of the creative content treatment.

Some food or fun experiences that brings the brand essence to its audiences. Maybe an AMA with the CEO at the cafeteria. Maybe a family outing sponsored by the brand to thank the employee for a great job done, with a specially curated meal only available to employees of that organisation at a waitlisted restaurant. Many of these ideas may not be new, but are they being brought to life by PR professionals? Are we the author of these ideas? Or just the publicists?

Public relations must reinvent some of its toolkits to continue to stay relevant and useful. One arena that clearly holds promise is the playground of soft power. Well-conceived and well executed ‘soft-power’ ideas will make audiences feel special, feel seen, and feel heard. It’s hard for sure, but soft power promises to deliver.

If you have doubts think K-pop. Korean noodles. Korean cosmetics. Korean cars. The demand for these products is being fanned around the world courtesy of soft power. PR must rediscover the potential of this soft skill to deliver tangible outcomes.

According to Wikipedia “In politics (and particularly in international politics), soft power is the ability to co-opt rather than coerce (in contrast with hard power). It involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. Soft power is non-coercive, using culture, political values, and foreign policies to enact change.”

The time has come for PR to softly but surely reinvent itself, if it wants to retain its appeal and attraction. The media world has changed and with it, the role of the journalist and journalism is shifting. AI has taken charge of content creation both in terms of words and visuals. If public relations used to be predicated on helping brands and companies navigating the press world and creating copious amounts of content to shape narratives, it’s clear that the next chapter is now upon the profession. Alongside hard skills like crisis management and reputation management which will continue to hold centre stage, there is possibly a need to widen the lens and include ways to nurture two-way engagement and relationships, in a planned and sustainable manner, which is also at the core of what PR as a profession stands for.

We must tread softly but surely into the realm of soft power and all the influence it can wield will be ours. PR as we knew it is no more. Long live PR. It’s time to add some soft power into PR and turn up the volume.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Nikhil Dey
Nikhil Dey is Executive Director, Adfactors PR.

A trusted coaching and communications professional, Nikhil Dey is a certified life and leadership coach (International Coach Federation - ICF). Nurturing talent and helping clients achieve their goals is what makes him happy. He loves learning from students of communication, teaching courses and guest lecturing at various educational institutions. When he is not working you will find him on the tennis court or out for long walks with his family and four legged friends.

Previously he has held senior leadership positions at Weber Shandwick and Genesis BCW.

He can be reached on twitter @deydreaming

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