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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bowen

What does it mean to be 'Relevant'?

It's an oft-cited (though less frequently practiced) tenet of communication that your message begins with the audience. Messaging that is exclusively concerned with what the entity wants to say is advertising. Effective communication is derived from understanding what your audience expects from you wants to hear and then delivering messages, supported by the relevant evidence, to address their wants and needs.

When we talk about the importance of relevance in communication, we are often talking about relevance to the audience. Why should my target audience take the time to read my story, explore my website, study my white paper etc. when there are so many other demands on their time? It goes without saying that content that directly matches an audience's interests is more likely to be consumed than content that is obviously pushing a 'message'. Good PR is effective in part because audiences choose to engage with it and, as a result, are more open to its message.

So from one perspective, being 'relevant' is about being appealing, timely or ideologically aligned with the audience you're trying to reach.

That said, communication also has a critical role to play for the organization. If effective communication is 'significant' for both the audience and the organization, then it is equally true that 'relevance' cuts both ways as well.

We live at a time of significant upheaval, from the war in Ukraine to the ongoing slide toward far-right Christian conservatism in the U.S. to the spiraling cost of living worldwide in the aftermath of the pandemic. With so many 'causes' vying for audience attention, it can be tempting for organizations to communicate their support for those that are relevant to their audiences, without necessarily ensuring that the same causes are relevant to the organization.

To be credible on any topic an organization needs implicit permission from its audience to comment. That permission is derived from two areas: expertise or experience in a field and demonstrable behavior that supports the position. It's obvious, for example, that a pharmaceutical company that calls for greater access to vaccines for low-income countries cannot be credible if it does not also provide products at low or no cost to those same countries.

However, the picture becomes more blurred when organizations voice support for divisive social issues. Should an energy company, for example, make public its support for women's reproductive autonomy?

On the one hand, an energy company has no particular expertise in reproductive biology and medical ethics. On the other, it may include specific provisions in its employee benefits package that explicitly support reproductive autonomy via healthcare policies, leave entitlements etc. Those policies may be empowering for many people but may also be alienating to key stakeholders. Where do you draw the line?

This is where the relevance test is important. From the organization's point of view, communication is relevant when it directly speaks to the organization's mandate to operate. Does the message speak to special expertise or experience that the organization has? Does it speak to specific areas of activity that meet audience expectations and reflect well on the organization? If the answer to either of these questions is 'no' then it would be wise to rethink the communication.

That's not to say that cause-related communication is a universally bad idea. but in this area, as in all other areas of communication, you need to be sure that the rhetoric matches the reality.

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