The Importance Of Soft Power

A stakeholder map too often looks simply at decision makers. It maps out a path to power so that engagement efforts can be focused. But this ignores the importance of soft power and the role it ultimately plays in decision-making.

Of course, looking at who makes the decisions is not wrong. But to focus too closely on that means we miss out on wider networks and fail to appreciate that even those without the ability to directly decide can still influence the decision. Such an approach would fail to deliver a full stakeholder map.

You need to be thinking about those with an interest in your issue, or a relevance to it, and what they might be able to bring to the discussion. They might be able to shift the focus of how a department is considering the issue or work to impact on the wider policy setting. They could bring a profile to the issue, particularly across the public, that may otherwise have been lacking.

They can often do this through their networks and connections.

Critically though you need to go into any engagement with a clear understanding of your own reputation, having addressed any weaknesses or failings. If not, then the stakeholder, particularly political ones, are unlikely to want to be associated with you and will certainly not be willing to spend they own political capital or risk their reputation for you.

One of the key strengths of a good politician, at any level, is their ability to make things happen, to unlock doors, bang heads together, or unblock processes. The general help and advice that they often deliver can be very useful as well.

They understand the policy-making processes at play and can bring that understanding to your issue. Being elected brings with it a gravitas that audiences generally understand, so people tend listen and react.

They can go direct to the right civil servants or Ministers. They can have direct access that could otherwise be lacking.

But it isn’t just about the formal channels to make these connections works. It is also the informal ways that work as well.

It was interesting to hear the former Deputy Speaker, Natascha Engel, interviewed by Jacob Rees-Mogg on the Why Parliament Works podcast say: “You can always make an appointment to go and see someone in their government department and they could always see you, but the informal relationships with ministers – they’re the things that really matter.”

But soft power also brings into play the ability to bring audiences together. They have an ability to facilitate because audiences listen and appreciate how positive that can be in making things happen.

On the flip side, they also appreciate that ignoring such outreach and facilitation can lead to reputational damage. You can be called out for not getting involved and playing a positive role. If you take a look, for instance, at the Metro Mayors then you will see that the ones that are achieving more are the ones who are prepared to use the full range of their soft powers particularly in areas where they lack formal powers or sufficient funding.

So, you need to be thinking about the value of the soft power to you. About how working with others helps to make new connections, joins you up with others and improves your network. All, of course, with the aim of being successful in delivering on your issue.

That shows that it is not all about direct power and arguing about your issue. Instead good public affairs is so much broader than that. It listens and learns as well as argues.

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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