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Interrogative on Relevance

Companies need to be relevant these days, though there’s never been a time when they succeeded any other way.

But now corporate purpose has PR and marcom folks running around as if they’ve discovered some magic elixir that requires the invention of new ideas, platforms, and metrics. Yet how does this idea get attached to concepts and proofs of relevance?

Good question. In fact, I’m amazed by how poorly it’s done, so here are three questions you might want to ask about if, how, and when your internal conversations about purpose can translate into externally relevant content:

First, is it reasonable? It is accepted wisdom that companies need to address the world’s “big” challenges, and many are doing so by spending lots of money to produce gloriously beautiful ad campaigns (print and video) and bold declarations on their websites. There’s also been a lot of internal communications on the topics, waxing poetic to employees about what “we” stand for.

Little of it is reasonable and less of it is effective, for at least two reasons:

Your purpose can’t be to save the world. Not aggressively destroying the environment or encouraging social injustices are table stakes for companies these days, so telling the world that you care about them isn’t unique or particularly compelling, let alone relevant (no matter what your internal PowerPoint slides claim). Unless you want to become unemployed, your purpose remains to make money and, secondarily, doing it in ways that satisfy the expectations of your stakeholders. Saying anything more isn’t credible.

You can’t tell your employees what they care about. Any time you see a company communication that presumes to speak for a “we,” there’s a good chance that its purpose is to fill an empty box on a slide in a comms plan that calls for it. Corporate purpose, like the way any individual expresses it, comes from specific choices and actions. Money spent on telling people what to think instead of empowering them to act is, well, not relevant.

Second, is it necessary? Relevance is dependent on necessity, at least if you want your stakeholders to care (otherwise, your content may relate to a topic of interest but not come across as memorable or particularly smart).

That means doing things that only your company can do, or at least do uniquely well…or taking on the biggest, most difficult challenge that your company faces. For instance, it would be particularly relevant if you use lots of paint or concrete in what you produce and vowed to figure out how to stop using so much water. Huge container ships that cross the world’s oceans spew air pollution to rival all the world’s roads, so transitioning to a renewable fuel would be a necessary thing to do.

Things that are necessary are also urgent, so plans to fix stuff that don’t come to fruition until 2050 or something are effectively irrelevant, since the planet may have incinerated itself by then (and we’ll all be old or dead).

Same goes for efforts to address social justice issues: appointing gender or racially diverse executives, often in charge of gender or racial diversity, might be necessary to address the immediate and fleeting needs of the most vociferous advocates for change, but doing so sets the clock ticking for effecting necessary changes, like figuring out how to bring diversity to that roomful of data scientists toiling away in your basement or empowering diverse suppliers to operate as suppliers (and not exceptions).

Symbolism can be necessary, maybe, but only up to a point. I’d offer that we’re at the cusp of 2022 and the time for symbolic gestures has passed. It’s no longer relevant, if it ever was.

Third, is it actionable? This means being willing to do stuff that may not be photogenic or lend itself to getting praised and winning awards at the next special event created to praise and reward purpose communications campaigns.

Relevance comes from doing, not saying.

Another proven component of relevance is making things actionable, so that your stakeholders aren’t just watching your beautiful declarations of philanthropic intent but can join in the fight. Is it really possible that your company can institute world-changing stuff without your stakeholders taking some responsibility? They could pay more, or differently, for starters, or do more recycling of packaging. They could recommend recruits and offer to co-mentor them. There’s a lot of research that suggests people don’t take things seriously unless it impacts them directly.

So why not ask for their participation, not just their ?

People are starved for more relevant messaging from the businesses and brands that fill their smartphone screens. But without a reasonable promise, necessary scope, and actionable effort, much of the communications that aspire to be relevant today is pretty irrelevant.