Culinary Diplomacy to K-pop: ‘soft power’ in international communications

By Jon Gerlis, public relations and policy manager, CIPR,

When Queen Elizabeth began her reign in 1952 the UK had 850,000 army personnel – a clear indicator of a county’s attempts at ‘hard power’ – with a GDP of £470bn. Today we have significantly fewer troops (150,000) and higher GDP (£2,090bn). Soft power is more about hearts and minds than troops, dollars or pounds – and it matters. Ban Ki-moon, former General-Secretary of the United Nations, and the keynote speaker at a summit on soft power, declared that “soft power is now more important than ever”.  

The relevance of hosting a summit on soft power at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre was not lost on the organisers with Brand Finance CEO, David Haigh, opening proceedings by outlining the value of the Royal Family as an asset in cementing the UK’s position as a global, soft power force. The ‘Global Soft Power Index 2020’ – surveying over 50,000 members of the public and over 1,000 experts – ranks the UK in 3rd place behind the USA and Germany.  

What is soft power? 

Soft power, a term coined by political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1980s, is defined as “a nation’s ability to influence the preferences and behaviours of various actors in the international arena through attraction or persuasion rather than coercion”. Is ‘soft power’ simply an attempt to rebrand a government’s international public relations efforts?  

You might think so listening to Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former permanent representative and ambassador to the UN; “communication, communication, communication”, in her view, is key to any successful attempt at leveraging soft power – there has to be a story and that story has to be “credible and compelling”.

Peter Fisk, Professor of Leadership and Strategy at the IE Business School in Madrid, agrees – “global diplomacy is now far less about the size of your army, more about who has the best story”. He lends his weight to the idea that to harness soft power, building trust is intrinsic; “soft power is something you earn – it’s given to you because people trust you”. 

It’s a matter of trust 

The inescapable narrative on trust would tell us that levels across all institutions globally, including in both the UK and the US, are in decline. How then does this explain both their respective positions in the top three with the international view of Trump’s election victory and Brexit?

Firstly, political matters are only a small part of the seven pillars that make up the indicators of soft power: 

  • Business and trade 
  • Governance 
  • International relations 
  • Culture and heritage 
  • Media and communications 
  • Education and science 
  • People and values

Furthermore, soft power cannot be rapidly achieved, nor lost. Indeed, the US has seen its global reputation dented but not at the expense of its global influence. Similarly, despite Brexit, other factors contribute to the UK’s strong reputation internationally. Those with a poor reputation – China (5th) and Russia (10th) – are still placed high due to their influence. Meanwhile Sweden (9th) finds itself in the top 10 in part due to their approach to climate change and through the influence of an individual citizen, Greta Thunberg 

Despite its strong position, the UK faces significant future challenges. It views itself as more generous, fun and tolerant compared to how the rest of the world views it and, worryingly in relation to Brexit, believes it is easier to do business with than others believe. A panel of specialists only include the UK in the top three countries in three of the seven pillars – international relations (2nd), culture and heritage (3rd) and education and science (3rd). Amongst the public the UK doesn’t feature in the top 3 of any characteristics including ‘a strong economy’, ‘good governance’ or ‘international relations’.  

The role for PR 

One area where the UK is genuinely viewed as a global force is in media and communications – ranked 2nd as ‘good communicators’ in between Canada and Switzerland. All panellists point to the crucial role the BBC, including the World Service, plays in this. This is something Professor Richard Sambrook, former BBC Director of Global News and The World Service, attributes to successive governments realising “the less they had to do with it, the better it performed” – his loaded words possibly intended to be heard across Parliament Square – particularly when compared to the likes of Russia Today or Al Jazzera. 

Whatever the future of the BBC, access to new technologies and the democratisation of the digital economy means that the ability to reach wider audiences (as seen during the Arab Uprising) or create new communities (over 250m people now play Fortnite) means developing nations and citizens within them have a bigger role to play. 

Back to my question; is soft power just another word for PR? Omar Salha, Lecturer in International Diplomacy and Soft Power at SOAS, believes governments should play a role in enabling and amplifying good examples of soft power for their advantage without being too close to them – something Lord Coe described in relation to his experience of bringing the Olympic Games to London in 2012.  

At a time when there is a growing struggle for people’s attention, there is a genuine role for communicators to play our part through increasing transparency, building trust in the institutions we represent and – according to Professor Sambrook – ensuring our work is “rooted in the truth” and “has a strategic heart”. The responsibility to drive soft power rests with society as a whole – including through sport, music (Ban Ki-Moon spoke of the success of K-pop band, BTS, increasing the number of those studying Korean across the world) and even food – yes, Culinary Diplomacy is really a thing.  

Whether soft power is a PR discipline or not, as the tumultuous nature of global diplomacy develops, an understanding of its role in international relations, and in how campaigns might be translated internationally, is something practitioners should consider. After all, there’s only so long we can put the Royal Family forward to battle against Korean pop.

Image courtesy of flickr user Nic McPhee via CC2.0.


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