The Value of Soft Skills in Building Soft Power, by Loren Hurst

In my role as a virtual program producer at State’s Global Public Affairs Bureau (GPA), I spend most of my time engaging stakeholders in small-scale settings. Much of my recent effort has focused on supporting the Ukrainian press corps as they pursue their dangerous work. The Russo-Ukrainian war and the lessons to be drawn from it have been discussed at length in the press. Earlier this year, a New York Times op-ed piece caught my eye. One of the causes of the Russian military’s difficulty with much smaller Ukrainian forces, it says, is that “many and small beats “large and heavy”.

From a broader perspective, the “many and small” perspective is relevant to how public diplomacy should be pursued today. The endgame of all public diplomacy efforts is establishing trust and confidence. When others want what you want, the use of sticks and carrots is minimized. How to successfully build soft power in a world awash in information generally and, more specifically, disinformation, is a major challenge. But it must be done, for as the degree of trust and confidence wanes in values and policies, other risks suddenly loom larger.

Trust and confidence are the results of successful relationship-building with target audiences.  The serendipitous moments that establish rapport often occur in small group and one-to-one settings. To transcend the negative impacts of social media, the smart strategic move for public diplomacy professionals is to invest in building soft skills capabilities to make the most of those contexts. Soft skills allow for a greater degree of “PD personalization” and the empowerment of local PD staff to deliver valuable messages to the right audiences. These are the small, intangible actions that over time form the foundations when one is seeking to build a virtual community.

Moreover, refined soft skills have an outsized impact in digital settings, particularly virtual engagements. These skills include running a virtual meeting efficiently and systematically, delivering clear and succinct speech, and being deliberate about follow up. These actions inspire confidence among stakeholders that the program producer is on top of things. Of all the soft skills that inspire confidence and trust, active listening is easily the most important.

The value of listening should come as no surprise to any experienced PR professional. The tricky part in a virtual setting is to create a context where stakeholders feel they have indeed been heard and understood. At GPA, I have used virtual listening sessions with up to six participants as a useful tool in program conception and audience research. In that context, two points are particularly important.

First, preparation is crucial to establish expectations. In practice, this means sending the questions you’ll ask in advance and providing a preview of how you’ll run the session. The purpose here is to give participants time to think about their contribution. Sending the session agenda in advance, and sticking to it during the session, also demonstrates that you’re organized, respectful of others’ time, and reliable.

The second key aspect is leadership within the session itself. Participants are setting aside the time to attend, so it is the session leader’s responsibility to be articulate and efficient when running the meeting. Getting to the point quickly and addressing the subject matter  demonstrates purpose. As a result, participants feel their time has been wisely used and are more likely to contribute valuable feedback. Leadership in this virtual context is all about having a strong suite of soft skills: articulation, humor, and time management among others.

Public diplomacy training should emphasize the importance of soft skills in virtual environments. Properly equipped with the right skill sets, even small public diplomacy teams can leverage virtual listening sessions to develop deeper audience understanding. As recent reports on the Public Diplomacy Staffing Initiative have noted, many diplomatic posts face challenges in implementing an audience-centered approach due to staff size. Digital and virtual engagement tools, used appropriately, enable staff to capitalize on the efficiency those tools offer.  

Loren Hurst produces, directs, and moderates live stream and broadcast media programs in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Global Public Affairs.